satellite image of Pacific Northwest taken at 3:00 PM UTC September 22, 2018.

Wildfires across Canada and the western United States have plunged parts of the Pacific Northwest into a “smokestorm.” It’s the worst smoke pollution event on record in the region, according to University of Washington meteorology professor Cliff Mass. Here are a few tips for staying safe until the smoke passes.

Source: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mass says the smoke is “a return to the ‘old normal'” from the years of the early 20th century before fire and forest management were introduced in the region. He added that while climate change is a contributing factor, forest management policies must be changed to reduce the occurrence of smokestorms. We’re looking forward to reading his recommendations for a “bipartisan, non-political effort to fix our forests” in an upcoming Cliff Mass Weather and Climate Blog posting.

For those living in the region, from Vancouver Island in Canada and across Washington state, it’s been a week of coughing, burning eyes, and foul taste hanging in the air.

What To Do

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns people with lung or heart disease, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among other illnesses, as well as older adults and children to stay indoors. Having asthma medication available and monitoring the impact of smoke on one’s health are important each smoky day. 

You’ll recognize smoke pollution easily. It can cause burning eyes, a cough, sore throat, chest congestion, runny nose, and fatigue. You will smell and taste it in low concentrations. This writer can attest to the sinus headaches that smoke causes after several days.

Staying home requires similar preparation for other major disasters. You need several days’ supplies of food, medicine. The EPA advises eating food that does not need to be cooked. It’s a great time to enjoy fresh produce.

Consider purchasing an indoor air cleaner, but not one that generates ozone to bind dust and make it fall to the floor, because that can add to indoor pollution levels instead of reducing them. If you have air conditioning, something most Cascadia region homes lack, turn it on.

If your home is too hot, seek shelter with air-conditioned friends or emergency services locations.


Monitor air quality data for your area. Click this Google link for a report based on your location. For example, at this writing, the air quality in South Puget Sound is 179, a measure of the small particulate matter. An index score of 50 or below is considered healthy, according to the EPA’s AirNow service.

And have NIOSH, N-45, or P-100 masks on hand and use them correctly. Unfortunately, the masks are made for work and do not provide complete protection against smoke pollution, according to the EPA. Simply pulling one on is not protecting you from smokestorm irritation.

What Not To Do

Don’t rush out and prepare for smoke pollution after it starts if you are in an at-risk group. Get by on what you have and stay put unless it is absolutely necessary. 

Don’t go out for your regular run and limit exercise that will force deep breathing. 

If you are a smoker, don’t step outside for a smoke or light up inside. Both will aggravate an already bad situation. 

Relief in Natural Ways

Earth911 has a variety of natural solutions to eye and chest irritation, the bad taste in your mouth, as well as headache and fatigue. Try one of the following if you have the ingredients in the house:

What’s your solution for smoke-caused irritation and dreariness?

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at and the sustainability leader at Metaforce, a global marketing firm. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their buying decisions on the planet.