UAA study probes unseen effects of Swan Lake Fire

Sep 23, 2020

The project, called "Understanding and Supporting Mental Health and Well-Being in the Context of Intensifying Wildfires in Alaska," will take about a year to complete.
Credit Jenny Neyman/KDLL

Researchers from the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health are collaborating on a pilot study to better understand the psychological impacts of Alaska wildfires on residents.

They’re looking for adults who lived on the Kenai Peninsula or in Anchorage last summer, during the Swan Lake Fire, to participate in interviews and workshops about how that fire affected their mental health. The study is entitled, “Understanding and Supporting Mental Health and Well-Being in the Context of Intensifying Wildfires in Alaska.”

According to Micah Hahn, one of the project’s leads, it’s a facet of wildfire impacts that often goes unstudied.

“A lot of the response activities are around preventing physical issues, right? Like, you evacuate people when there’s risk of their home burning down or when the smoke is really bad,” Hahn said. “But a lot of these things are causing stress and anxiety and that sort of goes unnoticed sometimes because it’s not visible. And so we really just want to bring to light all those other risks that are happening and all of those other really important impacts and make sure that that is kind of woven into our response plans in Alaska.”

Hahn is an environmental epidemiologist at UAA, so she studies the effects of the environment on people’s health. Her co-project lead at Johns Hopkins studies the intersection of climate science and mental health. They’re also working with a postdoc from Johns Hopkins and two student researchers.

The project is funded by a grant from the Bloomberg American Health Initiative. Bloomberg Philanthropies has a relationship with the public health school at Johns Hopkins. 

The study is a pilot project, meaning the timeline is relatively short and the sample size will stay somewhat small. Researchers will use brief interviews to assess participants’ eligibility. Those who are eligible will participate in workshops and interviews. 

Student researcher Amanda Hansen of UAA said the window for recruitment will close in the next two weeks, though they might continue conducting interviews then.

“So far we have about almost 20 interviews and I have some more scheduled,” Hansen said. “I hope that we get double that but I know, realistically, that’s probably not [going to happen] because Facebook has not been our friend.”

Usually, the team would talk to potential participants at events or put flyers up around town. But now they’re trying to do everything remotely, through sites like Facebook.

They’re also talking to first-line responders and behavioral health workers about their perception of the impacts of wildfires on public health, like workers from Kenai’s Red Cross.

They haven’t begun synthesizing results yet, but Hansen has already noted a bright spot in the data.

“We don’t know a whole lot yet because we’re still in the data collection process, but there is definitely a sense of community that happens that’s pretty common,” Hansen said, “and the community really relies on each other, and it’s just a really cool phenomenon that seems to kind of happen with these risks with mental health.”

Hahn thinks one of the reasons it has been hard to recruit people for the study is that the ongoing pandemic somewhat eclipses last year’s wildfires in people’s minds. Understandably, they might be preoccupied.

But the recent fires on the West Coast serve as a reminder of the significance of this work, she said. 

“And then we look at California, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, this problem is not going away. This isn’t a one-time thing in Anchorage or in Alaska. We expect that we’ll see more and more wildfires into the future,” she said. “So, at least for me, and I imagine other folks on our team, it helps us remember that this work is really important into the future, even though we’re looking at fires from last summer, this has implications for how we respond to the next inevitable wildfire.”

At the end of the project, Hahn and her team will hold Zoom webinars to talk about the results. Hahn hopes data will inform wildfire responses in years to come.

If you’re interested in participating in the study, you can email Hahn and her team at akwildfires@alaska.edu.

You can also follow the study on Facebook at facebook.com/AlaskaWildfireStudy.