Protecting Your Family from Wildfire SmokeThe U.S. experiences more than 100,000 wildfires each year, and those fires ravage approximately five million acres in total. When the weather is hot, dry and windy, which is common during summertime in most areas of the U.S., wildfires can expand at rates in excess of 14 miles per hour. Wildfires can consume everything in their path and quick, but the fire itself isn’t necessarily the most dangerous part. These fires also generate formidable amounts of smoke, and that wildfire smoke can reach areas hundreds of miles beyond the epicenter. Such smoke is dangerous for everyone, but it’s particularly treacherous for children, the elderly and those with chronic respiratory conditions. All smoke contains ash particles. The presence of those particles is intense in wildfire smoke. In an otherwise healthy person, those ash particles can cause serious harm to the nasal passages, throat and lungs. For someone suffering from asthma or other chronic respiratory issue, it can cause a flare up that leads to serious complications and even death. It’s important to think about how we’ll protect our families in the event of a wildfire before it happens. With that in mind, here are a series of useful tips that you can apply to remain healthy and safe.
- Monitor the public alert systems, including the air quality reports. The EPA publishes an important, invaluable statistic called the Air Quality Index (AQI). Heed it and all associated advice published with it. Remember that a wildfire can affect the AQI in your area even if its hundreds of miles away.
- Some communities monitor particle presence in the air. It’s very common in California, for instance. If such visibility guides are available to you, keep track of them. If not, you can find guidelines online to judge this for yourself based on how far you’re able to see.
- During a wildfire, local authorities may instruct you to evacuate. If that happens, do so immediately while following all instructions with great care. Only take essentials and pets. Follow the designated routes, and prepare for heavy traffic. If you have disabled or elderly neighbors, check on them and include them in your evacuation if need be.
- If there’s an advisement to stay indoors, do so, but don’t necessarily wait for such instruction. If there’s cause, the ideal course of action is to remain indoors. It also helps if you can maintain good indoor air quality, which requires a well operating HVAC system, adequate ventilation and a portable HEPA air purifier that can easily be moved from room to room.
- Create a better seal around unused doors and windows by sealing them with duct tape. This is a great way to reduce the amount of smoke that can creep inside. Vents leading to the attic from the outside can be covered with plastic.
- Never open windows or doors to get fresh air. Instead, run the air conditioner. Many units have a fan option that can be used when the temperature does not need to be lowered. This cycles the air and keeps smoke from lingering. Use a pleated air filter to capture smoke and other fine particles. Ideally, all of your HVAC filters should have a MERV rating of eight or higher.
- Do not run a fan that pulls air in from the outside. These are commonly found in bathrooms and in window units. The goal is to keep your home’s interior as smoke free as possible.
- Use a portable HEPA air purifier, such as the IQAir HealthPro Plus, to create a safe room where the family is gathered. Those with asthma and other respiratory conditions, along with children, the elderly and pregnant women should not leave this room. HEPA filters are designed to trap smoke, and they extract ash particles and all other particles down to 0.3 microns in size. Optimally, your air purifier should also have an activated carbon component, which will remove VOCs from the smoke.
- Never use ionic air purifiers as an alternative to HEPA air purifiers. Such air purifiers generate ozone and other toxic byproducts, which can be problematic for kids, older people, pregnant women and especially those suffering from respiratory issues.
- When going outside is unavoidable, try wearing a respirator. These masks can be purchased at almost any home improvement store. Choose N95s or P100s, which are NIOSH-certified disposable respirators, but keep in mind that these don’t help against toxic fumes. Do not use loose-fitting masks or simple dust masks. In an emergency, using a wet cloth pressed against the face is a somewhat reliable filter against smoke particles.
- If a family member has a chronic health condition, contact their health care provider as soon as possible. The doctor will likely provide some guidelines, so follow those carefully. If symptoms worsen, notify the doctor and remove the family member from the area.
The Components of Wildfire Smoke
- Particulates — Particulate matter includes both particles that are fine and invisible and those that are coarse and visible. The fine particles are particularly dangerous because they can reach deep into the lungs.
- Carbon monoxide (CO) — CO is a toxic gas that has no odor, taste or color, and it’s generated in considerable amounts during a wildfire. This is one of the biggest concerns for firefighters dealing with a wildfire in close proximity. Fortunately, CO levels drop considerably only a few hundred yards from the fire, but be aware of the CO poisoning symptoms: dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, confusion and shortness of breath.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) — VOCs are present in the smoke from byproducts of combustion. These compounds, most commonly formaldehyde, benzene and acrolein, irritate the eyes, nose, mouth and throat. Watering eyes is the most common symptom, but VOC exposure can be dangerous. For instance, formaldehyde and benzene are carcinogenic, and acrolein can cause permanent tissue damage in the lungs.
- Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) — PAHs are a type of organic compound that are particular to forest fires, fireplaces, wood stoves and the like. In the event of extended exposure, these particles can be carcinogenic.