Did you know smoke from wildfires can sometimes travel thousands of miles from the fire itself? That’s right — wildfire smoke can affect air in communities thousands of miles away. Fortunately, the amount of smoke arriving from such a distance is likely to be small. But even small amounts of smoke can affect our health. For example, in July 2021, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services advised sensitive individuals to limit outdoor exertion as a result of fine particle air pollution from wildfires in central and western Canada and the western United States.
Exposure to the tiny airborne particles of burned materials — wood, plastics, and metals, for example — that comprise wildfire smoke can result in a scratchy throat, stinging eyes, and more.
For many, simply staying indoors with the windows shut isn’t a viable option. And, even if it is, some studies suggest that indoor air can be more polluted than outdoor air. So, how can you and your family minimize the effects of wildfire smoke before, during, and after wildfire season?
Before Wildfire Season Starts
1. Create an evacuation plan.
While smoke from a wildfire can cause serious problems, your first concern should always be remaining safe from the wildfire itself. Your goal is to be prepared if local authorities instruct you to leave the area. Follow their instructions. The best way to limit exposure to wildfire smoke is to avoid it.
Get familiar with more than one route leading out of your area.
Know which roads lead to local shelters. If you evacuate to a shelter, inform the staff of family members’ medical conditions, such as asthma.
Have N95 respirator masks ready to go for adult household members.
They offer adults some protection from unavoidable exposure to wildfire smoke. Note that N95 respirator masks are not made to fit children. Surgical masks, dust masks, and bandanas will not protect children from wildfire smoke. Evacuating is the best way to protect them.
Have a 7- to 10-day supply of family members’ necessary medications in reserve.
Store them in clearly labeled containers that are waterproof and childproof.
Plan for the safety of your pets and livestock.
Shelters that take in people might not accept animals. Many pet websites offer information about local animal shelters and rescue groups.
2. Protect Your Home in Advance
Designate at least one “clean room” in your home.
If local authorities advise residents to stay indoors, it would be ideal to have a space with filtered air available — especially if your household contains children, loved ones with chronic conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or pregnant family members.
Set up an air purifier that uses HEPA filters.
Air purifiers that use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are more effective against wildfire smoke than air purifiers that don’t. HEPA filters remove up to 99.97% of dust, pollen, smoke and non-living airborne particles 0.3 microns and larger. All Honeywell InSight® Series Air Purifiers use HEPA filters and odor-reducing pre-filters, and are engineered for use with smoke-reducing pre-filters that may help remove smoke odors up to 4.5 times faster. Select an air purifier for the square footage of the room where it will be used. Honeywell InSight® Series Air Purifiers can change a room’s air 4.8 times an hour and are available as towers or consoles.
Change your filters. One way that smoke can infiltrate your home is through your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, and most HVAC companies recommend changing your air filter every three months. Before fire season, check to ensure your HVAC filter has been changed within the last three months. Additionally, you’ll want to ensure you have changed out your air purifier filter within the previous six months, so it’s ready to work at its optimal rate once it’s time.
The process by which air enters your home is called “infiltration,” and there are small steps you can take prior to wildfire season that will help keep your home’s air quality more safe. The National Parks Service recommends weatherizing your house to reduce infiltration — caulking cracks, sealing an unused fireplace, and adding weatherstripping. Added bonus? This will help ensure your home is not only more safe from smoke infiltration but also is more energy efficient.
If Wildfire Smoke Reaches Your Home
3. Stay informed of wildfire, smoke, weather, and road conditions.
Real-time, local information can help your household make decisions, like whether or not to evacuate, more safely. Check AirNow’s Fire and Smoke Map and NOAA’s Fire Weather page frequently on your phone or computer. Tune in to local tv or radio for alerts about road closures.
4. Keep an eye on your loved ones.
Follow local authorities’ recommendations about exercise and going outside for sensitive individuals. If you or a family member has trouble breathing or experiences other symptoms that don’t improve, continue limiting exposure to wildfire smoke and seek medical care. If it is safe to evacuate, consider doing so.
5. Reduce your smoke exposure.
Keep windows and doors closed. Don’t smoke. Don’t use gas, propane, or wood-burning stoves or furnaces. Don’t spray aerosol products, fry food, or burn candles or incense. These activities will add particulate matter to the air in your home and may affect family members’ breathing.
6. Use your “clean” room.
Remember that indoor air can be five times more polluted than outdoor air. Turn on your air purifier and try to spend the majority of your time in this room. Make sure it’s fitted with smoke-reducing filters you’ve changed within the past six months.
In addition to cleaning the air, you should also be cleaning your home itself. According to The New York Times, during and after a wildfire, smoke particles will inevitably settle on surfaces and flooring, so using a damp mop or cloth to clean more than usual is recommended. Perhaps unsurprisingly, clothes and household linens may also benefit from more frequent laundering.
After the Smoke Has Cleared
7. Listen to local news and authorities.
If you evacuated your household, do not return home until local authorities announce it is safe. If you’ve returned home — or if you never had to leave — continue to monitor local air quality. Smoke can stay in the air for days after wildfires have ended.
Wildfire smoke may not be easy to see outdoors, but even haziness can be hazardous to your health. Seek immediate medical attention or dial 911 if you experience shortness of breath, a cough that won’t stop, or other irritations that are not going away.
8. Clean up!
While the fire is still active, it’s important to mop, wipe surfaces, and launder linens more frequently than usual. But now that the fire is over, you’ll want to conduct a couple of deep cleanings over the next couple of weeks, being sure to clean your blinds, curtains, linens, rugs, and floors. Children and other sensitive family members should not participate in any clean-up efforts, as it can harm their health.