Increasing Wildfire Smoke Exposure Disproportionately Affects Socially Disadvantaged US Communities

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Communities already facing social vulnerabilities are more likely to bear the burden of increased smoke exposure.

Results from a recent evaluation highlighted the co-occurrence of wildfire smoke exposure and social disadvantage. Communities already facing social vulnerabilities are more likely to bear the burden of increased smoke exposure.1

Wildfire smoke poses a significant health risk to communities, and its frequency and intensity have been increasing in recent years. Understanding the demographic and social characteristics of the communities most affected by wildfire smoke exposure is crucial for effective public health interventions.2

In this study, James Vargo of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and a team of investigators aimed to describe the demographic and social characteristics of US communities exposed to wildfire smoke from 2011 to 2021.1

The team utilized satellite-collected data on wildfire smoke to identify communities potentially exposed to different densities of smoke plumes each day. They then linked the days of exposure to smoke in each category with 2010 US Census data and community characteristics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Social Vulnerability Index (SVI).

The SVI incorporated factors such as socioeconomic status, minority status, and housing conditions to assess social disadvantage, which revealed communities characterized by racial or ethnic minority status, limited English proficiency, lower educational attainment, and crowded housing conditions experienced disproportionately higher increases in heavy smoke exposure.

The highest increase identified within these categories showed race/ethnicity and language at a 449% increase, followed by housing and transportation at 357%. Socioeconomic status, along with household composition and disability, was also notably high at 346% and 309%, respectively.

During the study period from 2011 to 2021, there was a concerning increase in the number of days of heavy smoke observed in communities representing 87.3% of the US population. Specifically, the data underscored the steep increase observed in 2011 - 2015 of 0.92 (95% CI = 0.91, 0.93) days, as compared with 2017 - 2021 of 4.21 (95% CI = 4.18, 4.25) days.

The study noted this situation poses significant challenges for public health, as these communities may have limited access to resources and healthcare services, underscoring the need for targeted interventions to address the increasing wildfire smoke exposure in these communities.

"If the adaptive capacity is hindered by factors such as the language in which wildfire warning systems deliver messages, then those with the highest disadvantage in the race/ethnicity and language theme may be the most impacted," the team wrote. "Similarly, opportunities to reduce exposures are affected by existing housing not being fitted with proper air filtration or other smoke prevention measures, which may be more common in older multiunit houses, mobile homes, or crowded housing considered under the highest housing and transportation disadvantage."

Investigators called for a focus on efforts to provide adequate resources for emergency preparedness, ensuring access to clean indoor environments, and enhancing healthcare services in at-risk communities. Collaboration between public health agencies, community organizations, and policymakers is essential to develop effective strategies and policies that mitigate the health impacts of wildfire smoke.

"Communities with fewer economic resources as indicated by highest SVI may face more barriers in avoiding outdoor exposures following a wildfire smoke event," the study stated.


  1. Vargo J, Lappe B, Mirabelli MC, Conlon KC. Social Vulnerability in US Communities Affected by Wildfire Smoke, 2011 to 2021. Am J Public Health. 2023;113(7):759-767. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2023.307286
  2. Grossi G. The Burden of Wildfire Exposure: Intervention Implications for CA Children. HCPLive. April 5, 2023.