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Tips on Staying Healthy During Wildfire Season

September 5, 2017



looking at hills from far away with the closest hill covered with brown grass that is on fire with thick smoke is rising

Thousands of acres burning, evacuation orders, smoke and soot. Drought conditions in the West and extreme weather across the country have created the perfect conditions for wildfires — dry brush, hot weather and low water tables — and these same conditions make it more difficult to contain fires once they start.

Air quality concerns: What should you do?

Smoke and ash can affect air quality, causing breathing difficulties and other health issues many miles away from the actual fire.

If you can see or smell smoke, it is recommended that you avoid outdoor physical activities. If visibility is decreased in your neighborhood to less than 5 miles, smoke has reached levels that are unhealthy.

Children, the elderly, and people with respiratory conditions — If you can see or smell smoke, children, elderly people, pregnant women and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions should stay inside with the windows and doors closed (unless instructed otherwise).

  • Use “controller” steroid inhalers (like QVAR) as prescribed.
  • Use “quick relief” inhalers to help with shortness of breath.
  • If you have oxygen, use it if you have difficulty breathing.
  • Turn on your air conditioner to see if it helps, especially if it’s central air. If you have a window A/C unit, make sure the filter is clean.
  • Use fans in each room to help move the air in your house.

Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.

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Healthy Individuals — When smoke levels are high, even healthy people may experience coughing, a scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes and a runny nose. If you can see or smell smoke, you should limit outdoor physical activities and stay indoors if possible.

If you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed, seek shelter elsewhere. Watch for signs of heat exhaustion, including fatigue, nausea, headache and vomiting, and contact your doctor immediately if these occur.

Be prepared

If you are in an area where wildfires are a risk, there are several safety precautions you can take.

Before a wildfire strikes:

  • Cover your emergency basics: Know your wildfire risk (contact your local planning/zoning office or gov); make a wildfire emergency plan; have an emergency preparedness kit; review your homeowner’s insurance policy and also prepare/update a list of your home’s contents.
  • Reduce your risk: Regularly clear leaves and other debris to reduce wildfire fuel; prevent sparks and embers from entering your home by sealing external openings with wire mesh.

During a wildfire:

  • Be prepared: Stay tuned to your phone, TV and radio for alerts; get your family, home and pets prepared to evacuate; place your emergency supply kit and other valuables in your vehicle; connect garden hoses and fill any other large containers with water; if evacuation orders are given, leave immediately.
  • Minimize risk: Keep windows and doors closed unless it is extremely hot; avoid using anything that burns such as candles, fireplaces or cigarettes; run your ventilation system in order to filter the air; avoid vacuuming, which can temporarily increase airborne particulate levels.
  • Protect your health: Be safe if you are exposed to wildfire smoke; limit physical activity.

After a wildfire:

  • Return safely: Return home only when authorities say it is safe; maintain a fire watch for several hours after the fire; evacuate immediately if you smell smoke.
  • Healthy clean up: Wear a NIOSH certified-respirator (dust mask) and wet debris down to minimize breathing dust particles; discard any food that has been exposed to heat, smoke or soot; do NOT use any water that may be contaminated.