Residents in some parts of the American West are already used to thinking of wildfires as seasonal, rather than infrequent, threats. As the annual acreage burned by wildfires increases, residential areas throughout the country are coming under threat more frequently. Residents in many regions of the U.S. must now prepare for fire season. In fact, as the fires grow bigger, and multiple fires burn at the same time, air quality becomes an issue even for people who live far away from the flames. Take time at the end of each year’s fire season to prepare for the next summer’s smokestorms.
If you live in a region that is susceptible to wildfires (check your county’s emergency management website), your first priority is to plan for your immediate safety during a wildfire.
Prepare and practice a wildfire action plan well in advance of wildfire season. A good plan should include strategies for evacuation, communication with family members in case of separation, and plans for protecting pets and livestock. The offseason is also a good time to make your home and landscape more fire-resistant. Once you have prepared for fire, you can start to think about smoke.
In addition to the immediate risk of flames, residents in areas that experience wildfires — and for many hundreds of miles beyond them — need to prepare for extreme air pollution during fire season. Smoke from wildfires can create unhealthy air states away from the actual blaze. In 2018, a smokestorm blanketed the entire Pacific Northwest in dangerously high levels of particulate pollution. Smokestorms are likely to become a regular fire season occurrence as wildfires increase in frequency and intensity.
The U.S. AQI is the EPA’s index for reporting air quality. It is a scale that runs from 0 to 500, where values under 50 represent good air quality. Sensitive populations, like people with asthma, the elderly, and children should reduce their exposure to outside air when AQI values are above 100. Over 150, air quality is unhealthy for everyone — this is the level that Pacific Northwest air exceeded for more than a week in 2018 and continues to exceed in subsequent fire seasons. EPA’s Smoke Sense app helps citizen scientists learn more about the health impacts of smoke and provides location-specific air quality information.
Under normal conditions, indoor air quality is often worse than outside air. During a smokestorm, the CDC advises everyone to remain indoors with the windows closed. Start now to improve your indoor air quality before wildfires begin to burn. California provides guidance on selecting home air cleaning devices.
If you wait until a smokestorm to buy filtration masks, you may find them out of stock. Neither the face masks that you wear when you have a cold or paint your hours nor bandanas provide any protection from smoke. Plan ahead and buy them in advance. Although respirator masks labeled N95 or N100 with two straps cannot filter gases like carbon monoxide or formaldehyde, they will block particulate pollution. However, they may not be appropriate for sensitive populations. Members of these groups should consult with a healthcare provider to learn how to stay healthy during a smokestorm.
Hotter, drier summers consistent with climate change are exacerbating wildfires around the world. In the U.S., traditional forest management is part of the problem, too. A century of allowing the largest trees to be logged, total fire suppression, and nearly unchecked livestock grazing have created optimal conditions for the spread of wildfires. Unless these underlying conditions are corrected, we can count on increasingly more frequent and severe wildfires and their associated smokestorms.
Originally published on October 22, 2018, this article was updated in July 2022.