Wildfire survivors may face long-term cognitive and emotional challenges

August 25, 2023—Survivors of wildfires are vulnerable to cognitive deficits and post-traumatic stress symptoms, not just in the disaster’s immediate aftermath but also in the long-term, according to experts.

In an August 20 article in The Washington Post, experts explained the emotional and neurological underpinnings of “fire brain”—what some survivors term their struggles with symptoms like depression, trouble focusing, and memory loss in the months and years following a wildfire. These symptoms result from the brain’s response to trauma and, more and more research suggests, to inhaling the tiny particles in wildfire smoke.

Two members of the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health—Marc Weisskopf, professor of environmental epidemiology and physiology, and Andrea Roberts, senior research scientist—were among the experts quoted in the article.

“Wildfire exposure is so intense that it causes neuroinflammation on a rapidly occurring scale,” Weisskopf said. “The initial inflammation is actually a protective response—like when you have a fever or injury—but in some people, it can become chronic. The longer is lasts, the more likely you are to have more long-lasting effects.”

Roberts added that emotional distress compounds physical changes to the brain.

“Survivors often feel they should have done more to help others, which can be psychologically damaging and guilt-producing—and totally irrational,” she said. “In most cases, there is nothing they could have done.”

Read the Washington Post article: After the blaze, coping with ‘fire brain’