fire burning through trees

Last year, when the smoke from wildfires turned the San Francisco Bay Area’s skies into a glowing “Martian Orange” I found that within one minute of going outside, a headache and nausea would start. This year, I bought a HEPA air filter, have more masks, and will be more prepared. 

As wildfires become more intense and frequent, it is valuable to learn how best to protect yourself and your family from the smoke they cause. You don’t need to live in a fire-prone state to suffer from the dangerous mix of fine particles and gases from burning trees, vegetation, and buildings. In early August a smoke plume from fires in California and the Pacific Northwest reached Salt Lake City, making the air quality there among the worst in the world. Western State fires and those in Canada have sent smoke as far as Washington DC and North Carolina. 

If you are close to the fire itself, you could be in imminent physical danger. Please be prepared to evacuate and do so immediately if authorities ask you to. No matter where you live, Cal Fire has an excellent website with Wildfire Action Plans and other resources such as a list of the emergency supplies you’ll need. 

Wildfire smoke will make anyone feel ill, but those with asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), or heart disease, as well as children and pregnant women, are especially vulnerable. 

The CDC reports all of these symptoms can be caused by wildfire smoke: 

  • Coughing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Asthma attacks
  • Stinging eyes and irritated throat
  • Runny nose and irritated sinus
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Tiredness
  • Chest pain
  • Increased heartbeat

Effect on Health

We know that repeated or prolonged exposure to fine particulate matter is associated with negative respiratory and neurological health effects, and it’s now known that people who work in Fire Departments have an increased risk of certain cancers. 

Our macrophages, which are a type of white blood cell, work in our defense, attacking foreign material in our bodies. Unfortunately, for people with repeated exposure to wood smoke, those hard-working macrophages are suppressed, which leads to more of the symptoms we notice, like a burning feeling in our throats, and lungs that are inflamed.

Keep Track of Fires Near You

Here are some ways to stay aware of fires and smoke:

From the National Interagency Fire Center

  • Most smart phones have a weather app that will give you a number indicating where your air quality falls on the US Air Quality Index. 

Reducing Your Indoor Smoke Pollution

There are ways to reduce the amount of smoke you inhale during a fire:

  • Keep windows and doors closed and choose a room you can close off from outside air.
  • Set up a portable air cleaner or a filter to keep the air in this room cleaner even when it’s smoky outdoors or in the rest of your home.
  • If you have an HVAC system with a fresh air intake, set the system to recirculate mode, or close the outdoor intake.
  • If you have an evaporative cooler, avoid using it unless there is a heat emergency. It can result in more smoke being brought inside. If you must use the evaporative cooler, take advantage of times when outdoor air quality improves, even temporarily, to open windows and air out the house.
  • If you have any type of portable air conditioner, make sure it is not drawing air from the outside, but only from inside.
  • Use a portable air cleaner or high-efficiency filter to remove fine particles from the air. Run it as often as possible on the highest fan speed.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends avoiding activities that create more fine particles indoors, including:

  • Smoking cigarettes (never a good idea!)
  • Using gas, propane or wood-burning stoves and furnaces
  • Spraying aerosol products
  • Frying or broiling food
  • Burning candles or incense
  • Vacuuming, unless you use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Do Masks Help?

Your paper or cloth COVID mask will not protect you against smoke particles. An N95 mask that fits well is needed. Make sure there is one for each member of the family and that they know how to wear it. 

Portable Air Filters

According to buyersguide.org, 5 of the Top Air Purifiers for Smoke 2021:

AirDoctor

Covers large rooms up to 1262 sq. ft in 30 minutes

99.99% particle removal as small as 0.003 microns, including bacteria & viruses

Medical-grade H13 UltraHEPA™ Filter is 100X more effective than HEPA

Removes allergens, smoke, odors, and VOCs

Air Quality Sensor & Auto-Mode filtration

Hathaspace Smart True HEPA Air Purifier

Covers up to 700 sq ft in 1 hour

Removes 99.97% of particles down to 0.3 microns

5-stage medical-grade H13 HEPA filtration

Good for allergens, dust, pet hair, smoke, odors, viruses, and bacteria

Smart air purifier with air quality index display

Levoit Vital 100 Air Purifier

500 sq. ft. coverage

99.97% particle capture 

NuWave OxyPure Smart Air Purifier

Designed for rooms up to 1,200 sq ft.

Eliminates 99.99% of bacteria

5-Filter Electrostatic Precipitator and HEPA/Carbon system

Good for airborne viruses, bacteria, and smoke

We are heading into a fire season that will no doubt be a stressful time. On smokey days stay indoors as much as possible, and avoid strenuous activities. Stay safe. Please let me know if you have any other tips or helpful information. 

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