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Climate and Environment

How To Keep Yourself Safe From Wildfire Smoke

Two people in N-95 masks embrace as smoky air surrounds them.
A hospital worker embraces her co-worker as they evacuate patients from the Feather River Hospital during the Camp Fire on Nov. 8, 2018 in Paradise, California.
(Justin Sullivan
Getty Images)
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Even if you don't live or work near a major fire, you can still be affected by smoke particles in the air. So, what's in that smoke, and how much should you worry about it?

Depending on the fire, the smoke can be made up of various substances, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor, particulate matter, organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides, and more. Exposure to smoke can cause a range of health effects, from eye and lung irritation to asthma and premature death.

Those especially sensitive to smoke include:

  • People with asthma
  • People with cardiovascular diseases
  • People with respiratory diseases
  • The elderly
  • Young children
  • Pregnant women

Particulate matter is the main public health threat during short-term exposure to wildfire smoke, so it's crucial to protect yourself.
"Really it's about common sense," said Philip Fine of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "If you can see the smoke, if you can smell the smoke, you can tell when the particulate matter levels are really high. If you can do that, you should exercise caution."

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Here are some tips on how to stay safe if there's wildfire smoke in your area:

Around a spoke labeled "During a Wildfire" is a series of advice: avoid using whole house fans, keep outside time brief, no wood burning fires, candles or incense, run AC with a new filter or run a HEPA purifier, avoid outdoor vigorous activity, remain indoors
(Courtesy South Coast AQMD)

Stay Indoors

Thinking of going outside? Don't. It's best to stay inside with the air conditioner on. And you're going to want filtered air. Many evaporative cooling systems, aka "swamp coolers," don't filter the air.

Once you turn on the cool, filtered air, keep the doors and windows closed to keep the unhealthy air outside. You're also going to want to avoid vigorous activity — anything that makes you breathe deeply.

Do not use any indoor or outdoor wood-burning appliances or fireplaces. And when smoke subsides, you should air out your home to clear any polluted air that might be trapped inside.

But what if you're stuck in a car or driving through areas of smoke? Same deal. Close the windows and doors and run your car's air conditioner. AQMD says that carbon dioxide levels can spike quickly in newer cars if vents and windows are closed and the circulation setting is on, so crack the windows once you're in there for a while to prevent grogginess.

Use Protective Masks

The best thing to do is to seek shelter — but if you must be outside, being prepared is key. Wear an N95 or P100 respirator mask. These are the kind you see people use when they work with lots of debris in the air. They keep most of the smoke particles from damaging your lungs. We tested some other masks, and they didn't hold up as well.

Experts recommend that anyone in a fire-prone area keep such a mask in an emergency kit.

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One silver lining of the pandemic is that most of us now either already have a supply of high quality masks or know how to get one. If you don't already have one, in emergencies they may be available at evacuation centers.

Check The Air

Smoke isn't the only thing that can make air quality bad.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District tracks smoke alerts, but also ozone and other pollutants that make the air unhealthy to breathe. You can sign up for alerts from their website or check the air quality forecast on their interactive map.

Megan Larson also contributed to this story.

What questions do you have about the fires burning in Southern California?

Updated September 9, 2022 at 11:52 AM PDT
This story was updated with more recent information about masks and updated links to external sources. It was original published in 2018.