This year has been terrible for wildfire smoke, and it seems that many parts of the country are dealing with severe wildfire smoke for the first time. Let's answer a few questions. How dangerous is wildfire smoke? And how can you protect yourself and your family from the haze?
The key to protecting yourself from wildfire smoke is to limit exposure. You can do this by staying indoors if the smoke gets bad in your area. You can also adjust your air conditioning system to block outside air from entering the home. Finally, installing air filtration systems within your home can help purify the air.
Let's do a more detailed overview of how to protect yourself and your family from wildfire smoke. We'll discuss the pros and cons of each option so you can decide which is best for you.
Steps to Stay Safe from Wildfire Smoke
Imagine if Smokey the Bear had the power to magically make the smoke disappear with just a snap of his fingers! Unfortunately, during severe wildfire seasons, the consequences of the smoke reach far and wide, affecting areas hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Aside from making the sky hazy and turning the sun red, wildfire smoke can harm our health. Some people are more sensitive to wildfire smoke than others, but it's safe to assume that everybody will be negatively affected if smoke pollution becomes severe.
Later on, we'll talk about the side effects of inhaling too much wildfire smoke, but for now, let's talk about how to stay safe.
Steps to protect yourself from wildfire smoke:
- Know your limits when it comes to wildfire sensitivity
- Check daily limits
- Limit outside exposure
- Change your AC unit to recirculate air
- Install air filters in your home
- Evacuate the area
Now let's look at each of them in more detail, with more nuance.
Know Your Wildfire Smoke Limits
Wildfire smoke can be tricky. Depending on where you live, you may receive more or less accurate reports about the severity of wildfire smoke. The best thing you can do is to know your limits and understand the risk factors.
Some people are more likely to be negatively impacted by wildfire smoke. Often, they're people with preexisting conditions or may be more sensitive to pollutants. Some issues to look out for are COPD, asthma, or other reactive airway illnesses. Wildfire smoke can cause a flare-up of these conditions.
However, just because you don't have a preexisting condition does not mean you won't be affected by wildfire smoke. Sometimes, the impact of wildfire smoke is much more long-term. No individuals possess superhuman abilities to inhale wildfire smoke as a power source. A high level of wildfire smoke becomes dangerous for everyone.
After knowing your limits, let's talk about how to stay safe (Also, if you haven't already, read our guide on how to build a vehicle first aid kit).
Check Daily Wildfire Smoke Levels
One of the first ways you should take action against wildfire smoke is to check with your local and regional weather service. What should you be looking for? A couple of things.
First, you should check the air quality in your area. If you live in a highly populated area, then you're more likely to receive accurate data. However, if you live somewhere more remote, you might not have as much pinpoint accuracy for air quality. Regardless, if you're traveling for the day, it might be worth checking the air quality where you'll be going.
Second, you want to check the extended forecast. Assessing extended forecasts can be challenging if you live far from active wildfires and are only experiencing scattered smoke blowing through. On the other hand, if you live near an active wildfire, you'll get a better prediction about wildfire smoke.
You should consider moving if you think you'll be experiencing severe wildfire smoke for several weeks to a month. It's best to go ahead and relocate rather than suffer the consequences of smoke exposure for many months.
Limit Your Outside Exposure
For light to moderate wildfire smoke, the best thing you could do is limit your time outside by creating a tight seal within your home, keeping windows closed and your door shut. If the smoke is severe, you might try entering your home through a door that doesn't lead directly into your living space, such as through the garage.
Some areas have hour-by-hour air quality reports, so you can watch for those to determine the best time to go outside. We all have to get out sometimes (taking the trash out, getting groceries, going to the hospital, etc.), but if possible, you should do this when the air is cleanest.
While driving, keep your windows rolled up, consider parking your car in the garage, and set the air conditioning to recirculate the inside air.
If the smoke is getting bad, there are more ways you can fight back.
Change Your HVAC Settings (To Block Outside Air)
If you have an air conditioner, do your best to set it so that it's not pulling any air from the outside. How this setting works will vary drastically based on your unit. If you don't know whether your HVAC system is drawing in outside air, have a professional come out, and assess it for you.
If you have a window AC unit, try to turn off the fresh-air intake. Again, some models have slight variations, so you may need to become familiar with your unit. The goal is to seal off the inside of your home.
Let's consider an alternative solution if wildfire smoke continues sneaking into your home.
Install HEPA Air Filters in Your Home (Or at Least a Room)
When you know wildfire smoke is coming into your home, it's time to take action. One thing you can do is install air filters in the room. These circulate the air and help remove some harmful elements of wildfire smoke, but there are a few caveats.
For one, make sure you get the right-sized unit. Carefully read the ratings of the filtration unit and match them to your room. Many people make the mistake of buying a small air purifier and thinking it will clean the whole house.
Second, check what the air purifier is rated to handle. Some units will do a better job than others.
Please note that dehumidifiers and humidifiers do not clean the air and won't be effective in clearing wildfire smoke.
You might be wondering: why didn't he mention masks? Well, here is the answer: Yes, masks like N95 may provide some protection against wildfire smoke, but they will not protect you from all the harmful vapors and gasses.
Evacuate the Area the Wildfire Smoke is Affecting
Unfortunately, wildfire smoke can get so bad that the only thing you can do is evacuate the area. That is where that long-term forecast comes in handy. If you know you're downwind of a large uncontained wildfire, it's probably best to move somewhere else for a while.
Not only will this protect you from the smoke, but it will also protect you from a fire that's out of control. Although a tough decision to leave your home, it can be lifesaving if the conditions are bad enough.
Let's answer a final question before we wrap this up.
Why is Wildfire Smoke Dangerous?
Wildfire smoke is dangerous for several reasons. Firefighters working close to wildfires have to worry about carbon monoxide, which can replace oxygen in the blood.
However, even the slightest presence of wildfire smoke will carry irritant vapors, gasses, and particulates. You might have heard of particulate matter 23 or PM23. This particle is small enough to enter the bloodstream and potentially cause long-term health problems.
Let's go over a few final words.
Final Take: Staying Safe from Drifting Wildfire Smoke
Wildfire smoke can get pretty bad for several months out of the year. It's important to acknowledge the potential dangers of inhaling wildfire smoke particles. Other than evacuation, some of the best ways to stay safe include staying indoors, ensuring your HVAC system does not draw in outside air, and investing in a high-quality indoor air filter.
If you know you have a preexisting condition, you should be extra careful around wildfire smoke. The humid summer months are already tough on people with CHF and COPD - unfortunately, smoke aggravates everything. If you have to evacuate, it might be best to do it sooner rather than later.
If you're curious, read another summer-related article: staying safe from heat emergencies.