Cardiovascular Consequences of Wildfires and Climate Change

Night long exposure photograph of the Santa Clarita wildfire

Credit: iStock

This week, there’s been nonstop media coverage of the massive wildfires in California—including the Mendocino Complex fire, now considered the largest fire in state history. In California alone, more than 13,000 firefighters are battling flames that have scorched more than 600,000 acres. The U.S. is not the only country experiencing an uptick in catastrophic fire events. As global temperatures rise, European firefighters are also facing longer, hotter and more damaging wildfire seasons than ever before.

Firefighters and other first responders are at risk of burns and smoke inhalation as they work to contain these massive blazes. In addition, they may also be at risk of cardiovascular damage related to the stress and physical challenges of battling extreme heat and fire. Dao H. Ho, PhD, recently wrote about these cardiovascular risks on the I Spy Physiology blog: “The incidence of fires increases in the U. S. during the summer months. Firefighters fight almost twice as many fires in the summer compared to the rest of the year. On top of dealing with the extreme heat (sometimes over 700 degrees F!), these first responders face extreme physical exertion, mental stress and smoke inhalation on the job. All of these factors together can place firefighters in immediate danger of heat exhaustion, heatstroke and heart problems. In fact, firefighters are up to 136 times more likely to die of coronary artery or heart disease during or soon after they suppress a fire.”

Climate change may be causing more health problems for regular citizens, too. A recent study linked an increase in heart attacks to extreme climate change-related temperature fluctuations. Research in the American Journal of Physiology—Cell Physiology also found that higher temperatures are causing a boom in a fungus that worsens allergy and asthma symptoms. Unfortunately, this may just be the tip of the quickly melting iceberg.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed resources and tips for those in areas threatened by wildfires including guidance to help protect emotional and physical well-being after a fire. Visit to learn more.


Stacy Brooks is the former director of marketing and communications for the American Physiological Society (APS). One of her favorite things about working at APS was learning about the interesting and important research that physiologists do and finding ways to communicate their science to a wide variety of audiences who benefit from these research advances.

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