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Many California hospitals are near wildfire danger zones, study says

The Washington Post
April 30, 2023
By Erin Blakemore


Wildfires regularly sweep through California, destroying forests and threatening homes. But a recent study shows an unexpected danger of the fires: They can shut down, or prevent access to, hospitals and other inpatient facilities.

Researchers recently found that half of California’s entire inpatient capacity is less than a mile from a high fire threat zone.

In a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers analyzed inpatient facilities’ proximity to fire threat zones as determined by California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. According to the agency, fire threats are determined by the likelihood of a fire in a given area and the potential behavior of such a fire. The agency uses a scale that ranges from “low” to “extreme” to help assess the potential effects of a wildfire.

Those effects include closures of hospitals, nursing homes and inpatient mental health facilities, the researchers write. They analyzed inpatient facilities’ proximity to fire zones and their bed capacities across a total of 3,087 inpatient facilities and 214,358 beds. A full 95 percent of the state’s inpatient capacity is within 3.7 miles of a high fire threat zone, they write. Half is within 0.87 mile of a high fire threat zone and just 15.5 miles away from extreme threat fire zones.

The researchers found that Northern California hospitals are at particular risk because of the lower number of inpatient options in those zones. This is of particular concern, they write, because of the area’s fire hazards. Both of the state’s two most destructive wildfires took place in Northern California.

Previous research has found that human-caused climate change helped double the amount of cumulative forest fire area in the West between 1984 and 2015, and scientists expect that trend to continue as temperatures warm and the landscape dries out.

Given the current and future threats, the research team urges hospital leaders and policymakers to prepare evacuation plans and consider how to react during situations in which hospital access can be disrupted by fires.

“As the climate crisis continues to raise wildfire risk,” they write, “it is vital to protect inpatient health care facilities.”


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