Wildfire season is well underway in the western United States, and the smoke from massive fire complexes has a far reaching and negative impact. 86 large fires are currently burning, and their smoke reaches far beyond the nearly 1.5 million acres they have destroyed. Wildfire smoke can drift for hundreds – sometimes thousands – of miles from the site of the active fires. Smoke from fires burning in western states recently reached the East Coast and worsened its cities’ air quality.
When fires burn up trees and other vegetation, they release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Last year, fire-related carbon emissions were three times greater than the 21st century average for Western states. In California, the worst wildfire days produced emissions four to eight times higher than the daily average for all economic activity in the entire state.
Wildfire smoke is made of water vapors, small particles, and gases. Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxide are all released when fires burn and release smoke into the air. Water vapors are the main component of smoke, but it also contains volatile organic compounds, air toxins, and very small particles of wood and other substances. These tiny particles can get into your lungs and cause a variety of health problems.
The end of fire season is not expected to arrive until late fall. If you live in or travel to an area affected by wildfires, chances are high that you could encounter some of the negative health effects of wildfire smoke exposure. All people who live, work, or stay for prolonged times in areas affected by wildfires are at risk for experiencing negative health effects. High risk groups include people with chronic respiratory diseases like asthma or COPD; those with cardiovascular disease; babies, children, and the elderly; pregnant women; and smokers.
But smoke affects everyone in the area, even those who spend most of their time indoors. Common symptoms of smoke exposure include watery or dry eyes; headaches; coughing; sore throat; irritated sinuses; breathing issues; and chest pain.
Unfortunately, living with unhealthy air quality is sometimes unavoidable. The smoke can move into an area hundreds of miles from the active fire and settle in for days or weeks at a time. If this happens to your area, you still need to find a way to work and take care of yourself and your household. Here are a few measures that can help protect you and your family’s health from wildfire smoke.
- Check your area’s local air quality and use common sense to plan outdoor activities
- Keep windows and doors closed if possible, unless this would cause overheating in your home. If you don’t have an A/C system, consider going to a friend’s house or public space to prevent overheating.
- If you have an evaporative cooler, avoid using it unnecessarily to prevent more smoke from being pulled into your house.
- If you have an HVAC system, see if you can set it to recirculate mode or close the outdoor intake damper. This will prevent additional smoky air from being pulled in from outside.
- Avoid smoking cigarettes, burning candles, spraying aerosol products, or doing other activities that release additional fire particles into the air.
- Purchase a portable air cleaner or high efficiency HVAC filter
Don’t use a dust mask, cotton bandana, or wet towel tied around the lower part of your face to filter small particles. These methods don’t work. N-95 masks and P-100 respirators will help, as long as they fit properly and are used correctly.