The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified opportunities for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to better manage the growing risks from wildfire smoke.
Smoke from increasingly frequent catastrophic wildfires has created unhealthy air quality for tens of millions of Americans. The 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment projects that climate change, including warmer and drier conditions, will likely increase the frequency of large wildfires and worsen health effects from smoke. A 2022 report from the Office of Management and Budget estimated that wildfire smoke exposure could increase federal health care expenditures by between $128 million and $226 million per year by the end of the century.
Of the pollutants found in wildfire smoke, fine particulate matter is the main pollutant of concern with regard to human health. Fine particulate matter can cause health problems because it is small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, according to EPA. Exposure to fine particulate matter may lead to a range of health effects, from minor effects, such as eye and respiratory tract irritation, to more serious effects, such as bronchitis, heart failure, and death. Other pollutants in wildfire smoke can include air toxins, carbon monoxide, and pollutants that lead to ozone formation. All of these pollutants can lead to a range of negative health effects.
States around the U.S. have been impacted by wildfires and the resulting smoke. For example, officials from the California Air Resources Board said that wildfire smoke has been increasing and contributing to worsening air quality in recent years. These officials said that in 2020, the state experienced the highest annual acreage burned in recorded history, which resulted in 70 days affected by poor air quality. That year, over 95 percent of the state’s population experienced one or more days of poor air quality due to wildfire smoke, according to the officials. The officials also said that wildfires are expected to become more widespread and severe, which may lead to the entire population of almost 40 million people in California experiencing the effects of wildfire smoke.
EPA has partnered with other agencies to provide a range of information and tools to help communities prepare for and respond to wildfire smoke events. For example, EPA partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service to develop an online map that shows near real-time air quality data, along with the locations of wildfires and where smoke is traveling.
GAO says EPA could build on its actions to help communities prepare for and respond to wildfire smoke events. In particular, the government watchdog wants EPA to take a more coordinated approach to its actions that aligns with leading practices for collaboration. GAO’s review found that EPA’s actions are spread across program and regional offices and conducted in an ad hoc manner with no dedicated program or budget. By developing a coordinated approach to guide these actions, GAO believes EPA could better ensure that the agency directs limited resources toward its highest priorities.
As of April 2022, EPA had identified 15 areas in California, Colorado, Montana, and Nevada that were required to develop mitigation plans for wildfires. GAO found that EPA has opportunities to enhance its role in supporting hazard mitigation through methods to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires and resulting smoke events. For example, EPA could work with federal land management agencies—the Forest Service and agencies within the Department of the Interior—to strengthen federal coordination. EPA and the land management agencies have identified areas where their respective agency missions and goals for wildfire risk mitigation are not aligned. For example, land management agency officials said that EPA’s air quality requirements can limit the use of certain land-management methods, such as prescribed burns, that have the potential to reduce smoke from future wildfires. By better aligning their goals for wildfire risk mitigation, GAO says the federal agencies can more effectively reduce risks to air quality and public health from wildfire smoke over the long term.
GAO is making six recommendations, including that EPA develop a coordinated approach for its actions to manage wildfire smoke risks; and that EPA, USDA, and Interior align air quality and land management goals for wildfire risk mitigation. EPA, USDA, and Interior generally agreed with the recommendations.
It is also worth noting that EPA has identified additional actions it plans to take in its strategic plan for 2022 through 2026. For example, the strategic plan states that EPA will work with federal partners to improve smoke forecasting abilities, identify and communicate when and where smoke events are happening, build local capacity to help communities prepare for the risks of wildfire smoke before wildfires occur, and provide tools and resources for communities for health protection during smoke events. In addition, in June 2022, EPA and the Forest Service formed a subgroup of the White House Wildfire Resilience Interagency Working Group to focus on the air quality and public health effects of smoke from wildfires and prescribed burns.