This year’s wildfire season is record-breaking. In the US, millions of acres of land and property have burned, with tens of thousands of people evacuated. In early October, the California Fire Department reported more than 15,000 firefighters relentlessly working to contain 22 major wildfires throughout the state.
Not only does wildfire season incur death, injury and property and environmental damage, it poses serious health risks, too. Ash, when disturbed, can break into smaller, hard-to-see particles that can easily be inhaled. These particles, particularly at a size known as PM2.5, can trigger asthma or cause secondary ailments in the future. Children, seniors, and those with lung- or heart-related ailments become particularly vulnerable to the damaging relationship between wildfire smoke and air quality.
Whether you’re near the source, or hundreds or even thousands of miles away, wildfire smoke can still affect you and your indoor air quality (IAQ). According to our own data, levels of particulate matter were five times higher than usual during wildfires. CO2 also increased about 300 points, while toxic VOC levels tripled - all of this indoors.
The above graph illustrates the spike in PM2.5 readings on indoor air quality monitors within 30 miles of the SF Bay Area.
This graph illustrates the spike in CO2 readings on and around Sept 9, 2020, the day the sky was orange in SF.
This graph illustrates the increase in TVOCs readings during 'Very Unhealthy' air alert days.
If you live on the West Coast of the United States or other wildfire-prone areas, such as Australia, here are some tips to help you breathe easier during the wildfire season.
Preparing Before a Wildfire
- Invest in a charcoal pre-filter, mechanical air cleaner. High-efficiency particulate filters (MERV 13 rating) catch 85% of particles in the 1-3 microns range, including PM2.5s. This makes them highly-effective against wildfire smoke and ash.They should be tightly secured when in use, replaced timely, and disposed of with great care. Note: ensure the air filter you use can cover the size of the room it's in, and ensure that whatever MERV rating you choose is compatible with your device or HVAC system.
- Monitor your IAQ levels. Knowing is half the battle. An air quality monitor such as an Awair devices can help you measure your IAQ, particularly the levels of particulate matter (PM2.5). Such a system can help you keep track the impact of wildfire air quality on your indoor air. Armed with this knowledge, you can take the appropriate actions to improve your IAQ in real-time.
- Prepare particulate respirators. N-95 masks, though not ideal for chemicals, gases, or vapors, are pretty effective against particles. Keep them on hand, in case circumstances call for it. Consult your doctor, as well, if you have health issues that prevent you from using these types of respirators.
During a Wildfire
It is absolutely dangerous to stay in the vicinity of a raging wildfire. Aside from the dangers of the fire itself, dense wildfire smoke and air quality degraded by ash can trigger serious threats to health. However, if the source of the smoke during wildfire season is far from your home, or if authorities advise or allow you to stay inside, perform these steps to control your IAQ:
- Do not vacuum, smoke, burn incense or candles, or generate smoke inside of your house. (That includes broiling, frying, or cooking in general.)
- Keep your windows and doors closed and sealed, unless it becomes unbearably hot inside.
- Make sure that your air conditioner’s filter is clean and the fresh-air intake closed when you run it. If you have fans instead, only run them when the heat is unbearable or when air quality is still fine.
- If anyone, especially children or seniors, have heart and lung issues, it is best to contact your doctor and confirm if you need to leave the vicinity.
- Should you absolutely need to go out, wear the particulate respirators you prepared beforehand (should be N-95 masks or higher).
After the Flames
Authorities will often inform homeowners when it’s finally safe to return to their homes or begin the cleaning and clearing process. Here’s some advice on how to safely clean up the damage that the wildfire wrought.
- Wildfire air quality may take a while to alleviate. Depending on the size of the fire, smoke and falling ash can stay in the air for days. As soon as air quality outside improves, air out your home.
- Clean areas from ash with light sprays of water or damp cloths, especially when cleaning your car. Always wear a mask while cleaning.
- Do not allow ash-filled water to drain through the runoff system. Instead, direct them to ground areas.
- Carefully vacuum ash with genuine HEPA filters or industrial vacuum cleaners. NEVER use a leafblower. If you’re using a broom, sweep gently. Bag the ash so that it doesn’t stir up into the air again.
- If you have heart and lung problems, do not join the ash cleanup. Everyone else, avoid skin contact with ash.
Wildfire season can cause terrible disruptions to people's lives. Prepare for wildfire season as much as you can in advance and follow all instructions of your local authorities. If you are more distant from the immediate fire dangers, keep an eye on the impacts of smoky air - particularly on your indoor environment.
Even though wildfires result from natural and human causes we can’t always control, prioritizing your health in these conditions is important. Having knowledge about air quality, indoors and out, is empowering. One step of many to be fully prepared for wildfire smoke is to constantly track and monitor your indoor air quality. When you notice degradation to your indoor air quality, there are fairly easy steps to help you mitigate for better health and safety indoors.