What can we do when the smoke rolls in? An exploratory qualitative analysis of the impacts of rural wildfire smoke on mental health and wellbeing, and opportunities for adaptation

Citation

Anna Humphreys, Elizabeth G. Walker, Gregory N. Bratman & Nicole A. Errett (2022). What can we do when the smoke rolls in? An exploratory qualitative analysis of the impacts of rural wildfire smoke on mental health and wellbeing, and opportunities for adaptation. BMC Public Health.


Abstract

Background

Extreme, prolonged wildfire smoke (WFS) events are becoming increasingly frequent phenomena across the Western United States. Rural communities, dependent on contributions of nature to people’s quality of life, are particularly hard hit. While prior research has explored the physical health impacts of WFS exposure, little work has been done to assess WFS impacts on mental health and wellbeing, or potential adaptation solutions.

Methods

Using qualitative methods, we explore the mental health and wellbeing impacts experienced by community members in a rural Washington State community that has been particularly hard hit by WFS in recent years, as well as individual, family, and community adaptation solutions. We conducted focus groups with residents and key informant interviews with local health and social service providers.

Results

Participants identified a variety of negative mental health and wellbeing impacts of WFS events, including heightened anxiety, depression, isolation, and a lack of motivation, as well as physical health impacts (e.g., respiratory issues and lack of exercise). Both positive and negative economic and social impacts, as well as temporary or permanent relocation impacts, were also described. The impacts were not equitably distributed; differential experiences based on income level, outdoor occupations, age (child or elderly), preexisting health conditions, housing status, and social isolation were described as making some residents more vulnerable to WFS-induced physical and mental health and wellbeing challenges than others. Proposed solutions included stress reduction (e.g., meditation and relaxation lessons), increased distribution of air filters, development of community clean air spaces, enhancing community response capacity, hosting social gatherings, increasing education, expanding and coordination risk communications, and identifying opportunities for volunteering. Findings were incorporated into a pamphlet for community distribution. We present a template version herein for adaptation and use in other communities.

Conclusions

Wildfire smoke events present significant mental health and wellbeing impacts for rural communities. Community-led solutions that promote stress reduction, physical protection, and community cohesion have the opportunity to bolster resilience amid this growing public health crisis.