The Great Dismal Swamp (GDS) National Wildlife Refuge delivers multiple ecosystem services, including air quality and human health via fire mitigation. Our analysis estimates benefits of this service through its potential to reduce catastrophic wildfire related impacts on the health of nearby human populations. We used a combination of high-frequency satellite data, ground sensors, and air quality indices to determine periods of public exposure to dense emissions from a wildfire within the GDS. We examined emergency department (ED) visitation in seven Virginia counties during these periods, applied measures of cumulative Relative Risk to derive the effects of wildfire smoke exposure on ED visitation rates, and estimated economic losses using regional Cost of Illness values established within the US Environmental Protection Agency BenMAP framework. Our results estimated the value of one avoided catastrophic wildfire in the refuge to be $3.69 million (2015 USD), or $306 per hectare of burn. Reducing the frequency or severity of extensive, deep burning peatland wildfire events has additional benefits not included in this estimate, including avoided costs related to fire suppression during a burn, carbon dioxide emissions, impacts to wildlife, and negative outcomes associated with recreation and regional tourism. We suggest the societal value of the public health benefits alone provides a significant incentive for refuge mangers to implement strategies that will reduce the severity of catastrophic wildfires.
Journal of Environmental Management – Elsevier
Published: Dec 1, 2017
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