Fires in Australia have been burning for months. At least 28 people and hundreds of thousands of animals have died, and more than 15 million acres have been destroyed as firefighters work to squelch the blaze. Penn doctoral student Clare Super has been closely watching news of the fires.
“I’m from Montana. Over the course of my childhood, I experienced a worsening fire season,” says Super, a third-year graduate student in the Department of Anthropology. “Many of my friends and family participate in seasonal wildland firefighting.”
But for Super, interest in the fires goes beyond a connection to where she grew up. It also forms the starting point for her doctoral research, which focuses on how fighting fires affects disaster-relief workers physically, works she hopes will eventually broaden the understanding of how climate change and more frequent, intense disasters affect the bodies of more and more people. Her study population is Montana’s career firefighters, a group that University of Montana exercise physiologist Brent Ruby has been examining since 2018.
Ruby, a mentor of Super’s, had previously found that the body-fat levels of many of these firefighters increased over the course of a season, despite how active they were. And current models offered no clear explanation. “My guess was that these really intense, energetic, nutritional demands on bodies are creating a shift in the microbiome,” Super says.
That’s part of what she will try to determine as she spends the next several years collecting and analyzing blood and fecal samples from about 100 firefighters. She also hopes to follow two crews as they actively put out fires. Now, she continues to monitor what’s happening in Australia, with an eye toward the 2,700 people on the front lines, the influence of climate change, and parallels to fire management in the United States.