USC wildfire experts available for interviews

May 12, 2022

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

Wildfire season is upon us. Once considered an annual hazard on the West Coast, wildfire is now a year-round concern because of climate change and drought — in 2021 alone, California recorded 1,561 wildfires. USC experts in environmental studies, health and risk assessment consider this year’s conditions, offer tips on how to protect you and your family’s health, as well as the impact of fire on home values and real estate, and other topics.

Contact: USC News, uscnews@usc.edu, 213.740.2215

Experts seeking new wildfire mitigation and prevention strategies

“Summer in California no longer means the beginning of fire season. Rather, it means we are about to enter the roughest six or so months of a fire season that never ends. Drought and the increasing effects of climate change come together in creating the likelihood — even the certainty — of bigger, hotter, and more catastrophic fires year to year. Fire management practices are changing. Prescribed burns are helping to cut the fuel supply of fires sure to come. It’s all very gradual.

“What we need is more fire on the brain: we have to talk about it more, we have to study it more, and we have to try to understand it better, even as the ‘fire regimes’ of the American West are changing year to year. At the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, we have garnered state funding to partner with Indigenous and other landowners in the southern Sierra in a prescribed burn project that we expect will happen before the end of 2022.”

Bill Deverell is professor of history, spatial sciences and environmental studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He leads a multidisciplinary project called The West on Fire.

Contact: deverell@usc.edu

Downwind smoke detrimental to physical, mental health

“We often forget that wildfire impacts extend to cities and areas hundreds or more miles beyond the actual wildfire location through downwind smoke. The resulting poor air quality can affect your physical, mental and psychological health, so plan in advance for what you might do in case an event occurs where you live or work. Checking the Air Quality Index on websites like airnow.gov will give you an indication of the air pollution levels in your area.

“There are several measures one can take to reduce the potential effects of wildfires. Keep a supply of N95 masks handy — when used properly, they can significantly reduce the amount of small particulate matter you might otherwise breathe in. A home air purifier can also help but be sure to size it properly so the amount of air it filters is consistent with the size of the room or house where you plan to use it. Finally, if there is substantial wildfire smoke in your area, reduce your exercise, stay indoors with windows and doors closed and remember to place damp towels at the base of exit doors and windows to reduce leakage of outdoor air into the home.”

Ed Avol is professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC’s Department of Preventive Medicine. He’s an expert in smoke toxicity, inhalation risks, health impacts and preventive measures.

Contact: avol@usc.edu

Home value estimates should integrate wildfire risk rating

“Los Angeles features some of the most valuable real estate in the United States. This price premium is mainly due to our area’s great quality of life. Wildfire risk lowers our quality of life.

“Climate change raises wildfire risk through increasing our heat and drought exposure. This double punch directly affects local real estate risk through increasing wildfire risk in the fire zone, expanding the geographical boundary of the fire zone and causing local air pollution levels (specifically, PM2.5) to increase. Such pollution drifts across the region affecting millions of people. If we fail to adapt to this serious challenge, then Los Angeles real estate owners will suffer an asset value loss as our prized local quality of life declines.”

Matthew Kahn is Provost Professor of Economics at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is an expert in climate change policy, energy efficiency and urban quality of life. He suggested in an analysis for The Conversation that the federal government should set standards in the emerging climate ratings systems that consider factors such as wildfire risk in home prices in wildfire-prone areas.

Contact: kahnme@usc.edu

Drought plus elevated heat combine for dangerous wildfire prevention conditions

“Unfortunately, California is poised for what could become another severe wildfire season this summer and into the fall. Ongoing drought combined with high temperatures and low fuel moisture leave much of the state in ripe condition for a severe wildfire. Los Angeles has seen significant structure losses from recent wildfires like the Woolsey Fire in 2018, but residents may also be exposed to high smoke concentrations originating across California or the Western United States.

“Communities and residents can prepare for wildfires and the possibility of an evacuation by making a plan now and protecting their homes by establishing defensible space. CAL FIRE provides specific tips for how residents can prepare for wildfires at readyforwildfire.org.”

Rebecca Miller is a postdoctoral scholar with The West on Fire project at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. She is an expert in California wildfire management and community wildfire mitigation.

Contact: rkmiller@usc.edu

Infographic courtesy of the U.S. Drought Monitor