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Study to look at health threat from heat, wildfires, and power outages

A wildfire burns at night as it approaches a river
Wildfires burning near Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state.

Assistant Professor Claire Richards of the Washington State University College of Nursing will study the public health threat posed by the combination of wildfire smoke, extreme heat, and power outages.

Richards’ study was one of nine proposals awarded funding under WSU’s New Faculty Seed Grant Competition.

She became interested in the topic after seeing widespread power outages affect family and friends in her home state of California during recent wildfire seasons, she said. Outages can occur when power is turned off during hazardous conditions to prevent fire, when excess demand during a heatwave causes rolling blackouts, or when the transmission lines are damaged by a wildfire.

“Washington state is also vulnerable,” Richards said. “It’s getting hotter and drier here. Climate change is a progressive condition that is accelerating in its impacts. We need to take action on this issue.”

Richards added that the people considered most susceptible to power outages are the growing population of older adults who rely on electricity-dependent medical equipment. Some studies have also found that low-income communities and communities of color experience longer power outages with less notice and material resources to prepare.

The compounding health impacts of power outages and extreme heat or power outages and wildfire smoke—or all three—could be even worse than power outages alone. This is because power outages can also come with corresponding outages in drinking water, air conditioning and purification, and communication systems.

The extent of the public health threat is not well understood and, as a result, emergency response systems cannot be fully prepared.

Richards’ research will help set the stage for more studies by bringing together stakeholders from health, environmental justice, and energy sectors.

Closeup of Claire Richards
Claire Richards

“We’ll be running analyses but also meeting, sharing our analysis plan and engaging in discussions about emergency preparedness activities,” she said.

“As we think about strategies for dealing with emergency response, right now solutions are very inadequate for identifying the individual needs of the medically vulnerable during a power outage,” Richards said.

Possible solutions could include a reliable way of identifying the specific needs of medically vulnerable customers in a utility’s service area and keeping that data current so the right resources are provided at the right time during the evolution of an emergency.

Some energy utilities are already trying to do this, but “it’s not research-based,” Richards noted. “Energy utility companies express frustration with the difficulty in prioritizing who needs to be contacted first – who’s the highest risk and what is the nature of that risk.”

Richards said the study will run through next summer.

The New Faculty Seed Grant Competition is administered by the WSU Office of Research Advancement and Partnerships to encourage new junior-level faculty to develop research, scholarly, and/or creative programs that have the potential for sustained professional development and extramural support.

Collaborators on the study are Julie Postma, Professor and Associate Dean of Research, WSU College of Nursing; Tamara Odom-Maryon, Research Professor, College of Nursing; Von Walden, Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Joan Casey, Assistant Professor, Environmental Health Sciences, Columbia University.

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