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Health Impact of Wildfires on a Community

Lahaina is a historic town in the beautiful island of Maui, Hawaii. In the first week of August 2023, this town faced an urban wildfire. Summer in Hawaii is the dry season, meaning that Maui specifically, with its vast mountains and valleys full of greenery is a prime spot for fires. Dry, hot, weather provides a foundation for extreme wildfires while dehydrated plants and high wind speeds add fuel. So what makes a fire be wild? A wildfire is any uncontrolled or unpredictable fire of natural/accidental/criminal origin which spreads over an area with combustible vegetation. Any natural disaster is harmful to people but wildfires top the list.


Lahaina

Wildfires are detrimental to the overall health of a community, as well as individuals. Over 1000 people have died or gone missing during this tragic time, and over 11,000 people are still displaced. Families have lost loved ones and the whole town is mourning its loss. Beyond this direct blow to health, there are indirect factors that are still damaging the community even today. The hazardous material still in the area includes arsenic and melted aluminum. These toxic metals in the air caused a lot of respiratory illnesses and kidney abnormalities. According to the University of Hawaii, about 75% of the Maui population has trouble breathing and other lung related issues, while almost 20% of people have compromised kidney function. 


Health

The fire occurred in an area very close to tropical coral reefs with hundreds of different species, many being fish consumed by those living in Lahaina. These fish that are contaminated with toxic material damage the digestive systems of those relying on this source of nutrition. Although this is specific to Maui and its neighboring islands, fish is a really important part of their culture and traditional meals. Over 1 million kilograms of fish are caught from the reefs of Hawaii in a year. Some encouraging news from Lahaina is in regards to the city’s air and water resources. There is very little pollution in the air and water, meaning that it’s not an issue for Lahaina residents right now. However, we have seen this to be in issue in other areas with wildfires such as California and Eastern Washington. The air gets hazy and freshwater lakes are dangerous to swim in.


Not only are wildfires a physical health risk, they destroy a victim’s mental health, which is as equally as important and contributes to a person’s physical health. Rates of depression are some of the highest that have been seen, almost 55% of people in Maui are experiencing symptoms of depression, according to the University of Hawaii. Apparently 75% of fire survivors with depression are over the age of 50. Also, almost 13% of people with a low mental health are unable to get the help they need, as they lost their jobs. This adds to the emotional stress that a victim is already facing, along with any potential survivor’s guilt.


Lahaina

The occurrence of wildfires used to be completely unpredictable. However, after the Lahaina Fire, scientists have understood that more needs to be done to predict the spread of fires and protect people living in these urban areas. Meteorologists applied the geographic data from the Lahaina wildfires to simulate future atmospheric data and temperatures to advance firefighting efforts and safer evacuations. Until recently, it would only predict it in a grassy area, and although that is relevant, it is more helpful to see the direction in which the fire will move after coming into contact with office buildings and houses. The most recent update to this prediction system is taking into account how the fire will act once it enters an urban area, by overlapping multiple computer models and analyzing the accuracy. I can say that with no doubt, this will save so many lives and make firefighting operations more efficient.


Support

If you’d like to learn more about the Lahaina wildfires, please visit some of these sources below. If you’d like to donate to families or organizations supporting victims, please donate through a donation site, such as a reliable GoFundMe. Thanks for reading!


If you have any health questions (that could be relevant to this topic or not), please post them in my new forum! Here is the link: https://www.vesnablogs.com/forum, as well as instructions if needed: https://www.vesnablogs.com/post/how-to-post-health-questions-in-our-forum-english.


All of the pictures were taken by Hawaii Public Radio. Check them out below!


Sources:






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