How to Protect Yourself When Smoke from Wildfires Threatens

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Each year in the United States, more than 100,000 wildfires burn an average of about 5 million acres of land. Under certain weather conditions—dry, windy and hot, like it is during the summer in much of the country—wildfires can spread up to 14 miles per hour, consuming everything in their path.

In addition to destructive and deadly flames, wildfires also produce considerable amounts of dangerous smoke. Smoke from wildfires can extend for hundreds of miles and cause serious health problems—especially for people with chronic conditions, older adults and children.

Approximately 4 out 5 wildfires are started by people. You can help prevent these fires by complying with all local fire regulations. Before burning trash or debris, setting off fireworks, or lighting that backyard grill, barbecue or fire pit, make sure current weather conditions are safe. Dispose of all smoking materials properly. When camping, be sure to build, monitor and extinguish campfires safely.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends installing dual-sensor smoke alarms on every level of your house and in each bedroom. Dual-sensor alarms can detect hot, fast-moving fires and smoldering, smoky fires in your home, as well as smoke—for example, produced by distant wildfires—that enters your home through your windows and doors. Test smoke detectors monthly and change batteries at least once a year.

Smoke in the air from wildfires can worsen chronic heart and lung conditions, like angina, heart failure, asthma and COPD, and can damage your eyes and respiratory tract.

Here are some important tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help protect yourself, your family and your neighbors when a wildfire threatens the air you breathe:

  • Pay close attention to air quality reports, public health messages, and warnings about smoke in your area. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides important information in its Air Quality Index (AQI). Follow all recommended safety measures and check in with elderly or disabled neighbors to make sure they do the same.
  • Check visibility guides in your area, if available. Some states and local communities monitor the amount of particles in the air and provide this information to the public. Others offer guidelines to help people evaluate air quality and detect high levels of smoke in the air through visibility—how far they are able to see.
  • Stay indoors if you are advised to do so and keep the air inside your home as healthy as possible. Keep your doors and windows closed and run your air conditioner—keeping the fresh-air intake on your unit closed and the filter clean to reduce the amount of smoke that enters your home. If you do not have an air conditioner and it is too hot to stay inside, move to a designated shelter nearby or leave the area. Remember, check with elderly or disabled neighbors to make sure they are able to follow these safety recommendations. Control indoor pollution further: don’t burn candles, light the fireplace, use a gas stove, vacuum, or smoke inside your home.
  • If you have a chronic health condition, contact your health care provider. Follow your doctor’s instructions regarding your treatment plan and medications. If your symptoms worsen or you’re having difficulty breathing, notify your doctor consider evacuating the area.
  • Don’t rely on paper "dust" masks for protection from wildfire smoke. These masks are made to trap large particles in the air, but they can't protect your respiratory tract from small particles in smoke.
  • If you see fire, call 911 immediately to report it. Don’t assume that someone else has already called.
  • Monitor the status of wildfires in your area closely. If you are instructed to evacuate, follow instructions carefully. Take your pets and only essential items, follow designated routes, and expect heavy traffic. Provide necessary assistance to elderly or disabled neighbors if possible. As you evacuate, watch for fire and for any changes in the speed and direction of the smoke.
  • Don’t return to your home until fire officials declare it is safe to do so. Use caution and watch for smoke, fire, damage to trees and structures, and downed power lines.

Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Geographic, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 18 Jun 2012

Last Modified: 17 Sep 2015