The Devastating Wildfires in Hawaii

A Message from Dean Fried

August 16, 2023

Dear Columbia Mailman community,
Our deepest condolences are with the people and communities affected by the devastating wildfires in Hawaii state. We mourn the lives tragically lost to the fires on Maui and Hawaii (also known as the Big Island), which have been the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century. Hundreds of people are critically injured, and tens of thousands have lost homes and livelihoods. The wildfires and their aftermath are a public health crisis, with serious health implications across a number of issues, including respiratory health, mental health, and food insecurity.
While the exact cause of the fires is undetermined, reports indicate that the fires spread more quickly due to conditions exacerbated by climate change, including unusually strong hurricane and trade winds, hotter temperatures, low humidity, drought, and dry vegetation. Climate change also contributed to extreme heat and dry conditions which magnified damage by severe wildfires in Europe and Canada this summer.
There will likely be long-term health risks in Hawaii due to wildfire smoke, which is especially harmful to people with respiratory conditions, and chemical compounds from burned materials like rubber, metal, and plastic. Among other impacts, research has shown that wildfires and their smoke can also lead to increased rates of anxiety and depression, and cardiovascular and kidney disease.
Our School's faculty, staff, and students are working to understand, prevent, and mitigate the health impacts of climate change through interdisciplinary research, the education of students, health professionals, and the public, and student initiatives, such as Students for Environmental Action (SEA). We are escalating our efforts and impact in numerous ways. Our education programs, which include the first doctoral degree in climate and health, and our Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education are training a new workforce of professionals who can translate research into action. Scientists in our Climate and Health program, established in 2008 as the first such program at a school of public health, and in departments across the School investigate the multitude of climate change's health impacts, through elevated temperatures, wildfire smoke, tropical cyclones, heat stress, and air pollution from fossil fuel combustion, among many other climate change effects on our health. (Learn more here.) Our goal is to provide evidence and develop solutions to protect health, now and in the future, as communities continue to face the manifestations of the climate crisis.
Thank you for all you do to support the School and strengthen the science of public health so that we can better understand and respond to climate crises—and protect the health and well-being of those who are impacted by them. If you would like to support communities in Hawaii, the County of Maui shares information and resources on the website Maui Nui Strong.

Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH (she/her)
Dean and DeLamar Professor of Public Health 
Mailman School of Public Health  
Director, Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center 
Senior Vice President, Columbia University Medical Center 
Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine