As record-breaking wildfires once again rip across California, wildfire smoke is becoming an increasingly serious public health threat there and across the western U.S. And it’s getting worse each year as a consequence of climate change.
Here, as part of your climate adaptation toolbox, are some tips for coping with wildfire smoke, which may last days and even weeks after a wildfire event.
1. Know the health risks.
Wildfire smoke is a complex mix of gases and fine particles produced from burning materials like trees, buildings and their contents, and vehicles. The microscopic particles can cause big trouble as they easily get into people’s respiratory systems – especially those of children, pregnant women, and people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or heart disease.
According to the CDC, exposure to air pollutants in smoke can irritate lungs, cause inflammation, impede immune functions, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. And recent scientific reports suggest that air pollutant exposures can worsen the effects of COVID-19.
Healthy adults won’t typically be at major risk from short-term exposure, according to the EPA, but the agency warns that everyone should avoid breathing smoke if they can, and that the elderly and infirm and those with pre-existing conditions such as asthma or COPD are likely to be particularly susceptible.
2. Stay informed by monitoring air quality reports.
The level of smoke pollution can change quickly in real time, depending on fire and wind and weather conditions. Check local public health officials and trusted news sources or go to the AirNow.gov website (or download the app), and enter your address for hourly information on local air quality.
There, you’ll see the current Air Quality Index (AQI) rating – with 0 representing clean air and 500 representing emergency air quality levels.
AirNow also lists recommendations based on “Unhealthy,” “Very Unhealthy,” or “Hazardous” ratings. When levels are “Very Unhealthy,” for example, people with heart or lung disease, older adults, children and teens should avoid physical activities outdoors, while others should avoid strenuous exertion outside and limit outside time. Under “Hazardous” conditions, everyone should avoid outdoor activities to the maximum extent feasible.
For more insights, go to the interactive AirNow Smoke and Fire map, which shows all the fires and smoke plumes in a given area and provides detailed reports. (Here’s a recent report from Yuba City, California, as an example.)
3. Keep indoor air as clean as possible.
Avoiding wildfire smoke isn’t as simple as just staying inside. Smoke can enter your home in a variety of ways, through open windows and doors, and through less obvious routes like your bathroom or kitchen fan, and small cracks around closed windows.
The following are a few ways to keep indoor air clean and healthy:
- Keep windows and doors closed.
- Use a portable air cleaner or high-efficiency filter to remove fine particles from the air. Run the air cleaner as often as possible on the highest fan speed.
- If a new purifier isn’t readily available, consider this DIY fix that requires only a box fan, furnace filter, and packing tape. (Just don’t leave it unattended.)
- Adjust your air conditioner or HVAC system to keep smoke out. For example, if you have central air with fresh air intake, close it or adjust to recirculate mode. For a window unit, close the outdoor air damper, and make sure the seal between the AC unit and the window is as tight as possible. Having foam window insulation, readily available from local hardware or big box stores, will help keep air pollutants out and also help save AC cooling costs. For those unable to stop an AC from bringing in outdoor air, EPA advises in some cases using a fan and window shades instead.
- Avoid activities that create more indoor particulate matter, such as smoking, using wood-burning stoves and furnaces, and even vacuuming (unless your vacuum has a HEPA filter).
- Create a clean room where you keep the best air cleaner running continuously and take extra measures like dusting or wiping down surfaces to keep settled particles from getting back into the air.
- If outdoor air quality improves, even temporarily, open windows to air out your home before conditions worsen again.
4. Consider using a respirator if you already have one.
By most accounts, including the EPA’s, a tight-fitting N95 or P100 particulate respirator is the best face covering to use if you must be outside for extended periods in smoky or ash conditions, because they filter at least 95% of airborne particles.
But these very masks are in short supply as a result of COVID-19, and many public health experts emphasize that available supplies are best saved for frontline healthcare professionals. Plus, they shouldn’t be used by people with certain medical conditions and aren’t designed for children.
Ultimately, the best plan for most folks is to stay inside in a room with clean air. And remember that the same applies to indoor pets.
5. Don’t overlook the potential for mental health impacts.
Be kind to yourself and others, because as the CDC states, it’s natural to feel sad, mad, guilty, or even numb after experiencing the impacts, stress, or trauma of a wildfire. Don’t hesitate to talk to a licensed psychologist, social worker, or counselor if you need help coping.