Across the country, wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense as climate change dries out forests. Scientists and public health advocates are also increasingly recognizing the danger posed not just by the flames themselves, but the smoke that they generate. Smoke from megafires in the West has blocked out the sun as far as Washington, D.C.; asthma cases and deaths from wildfire smoke now affect more people in the Eastern U.S. than in the West.

But these impacts are not distributed equally. Communities of color and low-income residents in urban areas already shoulder disproportionate air pollution burdens from sources like truck traffic and industrial waste sites. But Indigenous communities, which tend to be located in rural areas closest to blazes and often have difficulties accessing air filters and upgrading homes to keep out the smallest particles, can be more vulnerable to the impacts of intensifying pollution from wildfires than other groups.

Last year, researchers at the University of California examined the impact of wildfires on communities around the state over the past 20 years. Their study found that areas with a higher percentage of Indigenous residents experienced more frequent and severe fires. In the most highly affected areas, the Indigenous population was about three times higher than the average census tract. Even the topography of reservations like Mille Lacs can concentrate dangerous levels of wildfire haze, threatening tribes’ rights to hunt, fish, and use their land guaranteed under treaties with the U.S. government.

A Columbia University study published in March found that air pollution in Native American communities is worse than in non-Native areas, despite nationwide improvements in air quality over the last 20 years. These health disparities aren’t just from exposure to wildfire smoke, but experts say it is a significant factor. In 2018, one study found that American Indian and Alaska Native people were 20 percent more likely to have asthma compared to non-Hispanic whites.

Read the full article about wildfire smoke pollution in Native communities by Diana Kruzman at Grist.