This year has seen a shocking spate of wildfires and heat waves. Recently, the temperature in Lytton, British Columbia, Canada, reached a record high of 121 degrees Fahrenheit, just hours before most of the town was lost to a devastating fire.
As climate change continues to drive global temperatures upward and increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires, people are learning how to keep themselves safe. Even people living in regions not traditionally at risk of wildfires are now grappling with the possibility of an out-of-control blaze impacting their lives.
In addition to the fires themselves, an accompanying threat to our health and safety is a silent one: the smoke produced by wildfires. Microscopic particles released into the air by a fire can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause a range of health issues, from burning eyes and a runny nose to heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.
No matter where you live, you may be at risk of inhaling particles pushed into the atmosphere by a distant fire. Just this July, residents of New York City awoke to find a brilliant red haze surrounding the sun. Though it made for interesting photographs shared widely on social media, that haze indicated very poor air quality.
A distant fire can have significant health effects. In order to keep safe from this risk, it's important to be vigilant and prepared, especially if you live near an area where wildfires are common.
Here are some ways to prepare your home for maximum safety during periods of poor air quality:
• Ensure that your house is properly and firmly insulated. Unsealed windows, cracks, and vents can let unwanted air in and endanger your home.
• Find out where your house vents air; you may need to seal it if smoke pollution becomes severe. Many houses have multiple vent locations, some in hard-to-reach spots.
• If you have a heart condition or a condition that affects your breathing, such as lung disease or asthma, talk with your healthcare provider about a fire season action plan — including how much medication you should have on hand in case of emergency.
• If possible, have a several-day supply of nonperishable foods that do not require cooking. The smoke produced by frying or broiling can negatively affect indoor air quality.
• Room air cleaners can reduce particle levels indoors, but before purchasing one, be sure to check the manufacturer’s specifications (to make sure you are buying the right size and type for the rooms you will be using it in).
If you live in an area where a wildfire is a possibility, it’s also important to have an action plan in place, in case evacuation is required.
• Keep an emergency kit with identification papers, cash, personal hygiene products and a change of clothes. This way, you won’t be scrambling to find essentials when every minute matters.
• Keep track of the shelters in your area and make sure you know how to reach them. If you have pets, check the shelter’s policies ahead of time, as many do not accept pets.
• Do your best to plan multiple escape routes. Embers of forest fires sometimes carry on wind and spread the fire by miles, making the path of the fire erratic and unpredictable. If a road is smoked out or surrounded by flames, don’t drive through it!
• Get more wildfire preparation tips at Ready.gov.
Even if your house is not in immediate danger of catching fire, seeing or smelling the smoke of a distant fire — or simply learning that air quality has reached an unhealthy level — may require action. Here are some tips for keeping yourself and your loved ones safer.
• Pay attention to air quality reports, especially if you are aware of a wildfire in your vicinity. When air quality is very poor, children, senior citizens, and people with respiratory issues should remain indoors, and everyone should avoid the outdoors and avoid physical exertion as much as possible.
• Shutting windows is a given, but air can get into your home in other ways. If you have an air conditioner, high-efficiency filters will help snag dangerous smoke particles. For systems with fresh air intake, ensure that you close the outdoor intake, or consider setting your AC to recirculate mode.
• Use your fans! Keeping the air moving helps prevent toxins from building up to dangerous levels.
• Don’t smoke yourselves out of your home — avoid using candles, using fire or gas stoves, frying or searing meats, using incense, or using cigarettes or pipes. A simple cloth or cotton mask like those recommended to protect against COVID-19 are not effective for smoke particles. It may be wise to have a supply of N-95 or P-100 masks on hand, and to learn how to use them correctly. (They’re sold at many hardware stores and online.)
If you are experiencing prolonged difficulty breathing or catching your breath, seek immediate medical attention. Mild irritation is likely nothing to worry about, but shortness of breath that lasts longer than a couple of hours after inhaling smoke may be a sign of a serious health issue.
Carbon Health provides virtual and in-person primary and urgent care — book an appointment today.