Wildfire Toolkit: Public & Mental Health

Many Latinos lack adequate access to healthcare services due to a variety of reasons from being uninsured or underinsured, transportation, linguistic or cultural barriers and literacy, to mistrust of agencies or providers, or inappropriate and inadequate care and follow up. These challenges are exacerbated by emergencies such as wildfires, which lead to increased health risks. Smoke and air pollution from wildfires can aggravate existing health conditions such as asthma, chronic diseases, and disproportionately affect the young and elderly. It is important that communities, decision makers, organizations, and legislators understand the public and mental health risks disproportionately experienced by Latinos during and after a wildfire.

  • In 2015, 19.5% of the Latino population was not covered by health insurance, as compared to 6.3% of the white population that is uninsured.
  • In 2015, 17.5% of Latinos from all age groups did not have a ‘’usual place to go for medical care”, as compared to 11.2% of their non-Latino white counterparts. Whereas for young adults (aged 19-25), these percentages were 34.9% for Latinos and 25.7% for the non-Latino white population.
  • 60% of US Latinos struggle to communicate with a healthcare provider due to language or cultural barriers.
  • A 2017 study found that 70% of Latinos list family, friends, churches, or community groups as their main sources of health information and 83% obtain some of their health-related information from media sources (television, radio, newspapers, magazines, or the internet).
  • The poverty among Latinos in 2016 was 19.4%, compared to the national poverty rate of 12.7%. This means that 1 in 5 Latinos will not have the economic resources to prepare, adapt, or cope with health issues associated with wildfires and poor air quality.


  • Latino children are 60% more at risk than their white counterparts of having asthma attacks exacerbated by air pollution. Direct exposure to wildfire smoke can disproportionately affect Latinos already struggling with asthma.
  • Compared to non-Latino whites, Latinos with asthma are less likely to be prescribed appropriate asthma medications and less likely to have access to asthma specialists.
  • Those that have an asthma emergency that sends them to the ER or hospital are less likely to receive follow-up care or an asthma action plan.

The high rates of asthma among Latino populations in combination with the lack of or inappropriate services and inadequate socio-economic resources, leads to higher risk of illness and death among Latinos when asthma and other chronic diseases are aggravated by wildfire smoke and air pollution.

Mental Health

  • One study found 36% of Hispanics with depression receive care, versus 60% of whites.
  • Approximately 33% of Latino adults with mental illness receive treatment each year compared to the U.S. average of 43%.
  • Recent Latino immigrants are at risk for traumatic exposure both before and after migration, PTSD, depression and stress associated with the immigration experience and the challenges of integration versus marginalization in the US. Individuals who come from countries with a history of political violence often have multiple traumatic experiences.

The stress and potential traumatization caused by wildfires, emergency evacuation, or interaction with government agencies during these events, only puts recent Latino immigrants at higher risk of developing or exacerbating mental health issues.

Environmental Exposure

  • There are 2.5 - 3 million farmworkers in the United States, 80% of whom are Hispanic or Latino. Latinos make up the highest percentage of natural resource laborers, 16.8% -more than 6% than any other race/ethnicity.
  • These high rates of outdoor employment leads to higher risks by Latino workers of being exposed to unhealthy levels of smoke and air pollution during and after a wildfire.

For additional information on the effects of wildfires on public and mental health, review: Psychiatric Disorders Among Adults Seeking Emergency Disaster Assistance After a Wildland-Urban Interface Fire.

Research & Resources for Solutions

Public and mental health resources and services are important for thriving societies. It is critical that decision makers understand how these resources and services can be integrated into wildfire planning, response and recovery plans, particularly in efforts that address the barriers and unique needs of Latino communities and families.

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Hispanic Access Foundation connects Latinos and others with partners and opportunities to improve lives and create an equitable society.

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