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Wildfires are unplanned, uncontrolled fires that occur in natural areas all around the world (1). Common areas for wildfires include prairies, forests, and grasslands. They produce an abundance of fire and wildfire smoke and burn plant life in and above the ground. These fires happen because of natural phenomena like lightning strikes or because of human activity (2).
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 6.2 million people were affected by wildfires between 1998 and 2017 (3). Because climate change is affecting rainfall and temperatures, wildfire season is becoming longer each year, and the frequency and size of the fires is growing.
From 2000 to 2019, Earth Networks noted that there was an average of 71,300 wildfires across the U.S. and 6.9 million acres burned during that same time period (4).
The risk of wildfires increases during high wind conditions as well as dry conditions like droughts (5). Access to gas, power, and water becomes limited during wildfires, and transportation and communication are affected as well. These fires damage property, crops, and resources, and they affect air quality because they produce considerable smoke pollution.
Wildfire smoke can linger in the air for hours, days, or even weeks. This smoke is made of gases like carbon monoxide mixed with fine particles from burning plants, building materials, water vapor, and other particle pollutants (6):
Volatile organic compounds
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
Particle pollution is a mix of coarse and fine particles. Wildfire smoke increases the number of particles in the air to the point where they become visible. The air will look smoky, hazy, or foggy and sight lines become limited. Smoke damage from wildfires presents a public health threat, and the smoke can cause several health conditions. During wildfire season, people in affected areas should regularly check their wildfire smoke forecast or wildfire smoke map before going outdoors.
Anyone can be affected by wildfire smoke, and evidence has shown that the risk of negative heath issues varies. Children and older adults are at higher risk of more severe issues (7), while young and middle-aged adults are lower risk.
Children’s lungs are still developing, so they often breathe in more air for their size than adults, according to the American Lung Association (8). They need extra precaution when it comes to smoke exposure. Older adults with current health conditions should also take extra care during wildfire season.
Individuals with certain health conditions like asthma and cardiovascular issues, pregnant women, and outdoor workers are also in the higher risk category (9).
Wildfire smoke causes several negative effects to the land, buildings, and people. Smoke affects both indoor and outdoor air quality in rural and urban settings. Wildfire smoke can be an issue hundreds of miles away from the fire itself.
A wildfire smoke map will display affected areas, and many areas provide information on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Air Quality Index for particle matter. As wildfire smoke worsens, the index changes, so it’s important to read these reports during wildfire season.
When the air quality index is between 101-150, it’s unhealthy for sensitive groups. When it reaches 151-200, the air is unhealthy, when it’s between 201-300 the air is very unhealthy, and when it’s between 301-500 the air is hazardous (10).
When levels of wildfire smoke are high, individuals should avoid going outside. Smoke exposure is linked to respiratory issues, irritated eyes, coughing, difficulty breathing, and cardiovascular issues (11).
Because indoor air quality is affected, using a HEPA air purifier for wildfire smoke helps to trap and seal in particle pollution and keep the air at home cleaner and safer to breathe.
There are several ways to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke and stay safe during wildfire season.
Though indoor air quality is affected by wildfire smoke, it’s not as dangerous as the air pollution outside. Whenever possible stay indoors during active wildfires to reduce your risk of inhaling smoke, ashes, and particle pollutants. You’ll also want to keep doors and windows closed. The effects of wildfire smoke in animals are like those in humans, so it’s a good idea to keep pets indoors as well (12).
It’s helpful to avoid smoking and using gas stoves, wood-burning fireplaces, gas logs, and candles as those contribute to indoor air pollution.
When spending extra time indoors, you don’t want to overheat. Use fans or air conditioning set to recirculate air. If you don’t have air conditioning, consider going to an indoor public place with good air circulation to stay cool and safe.
If you’re driving through wildfire smoke, reduce your risk of exposure by keeping the windows closed and setting the air conditioner to the recirculating air setting (13). This limits particle exposure, but not exposure to the toxic gases emitted by the smoke.
If you must go outside during a wildfire, wearing a mask helps keep you safe, and it’s important to wear the right type of mask. The CDC recommends wearing a properly fitting NIOSH-approved N95 or KN95 respirator mask (14). You should also limit time spent outside if possible. A dust mask, wet towel, or bandana won’t provide much protection. They limit large particles from getting through, but it doesn’t stop fine particles that can get into lungs.
Indoor air quality is affected, so consider using an air purifier for wildfire smoke. Air purifiers with sealed HEPA filters offer additional protection by trapping and sealing in particle pollution and projecting filtered clean air back into the room. Not only do these air purifiers filter out wildfire smoke pollution, but pollution from pet dander and fumes from gas stoves, cleaning products, and beauty products as well. If you have a child or children, consider putting air purifiers in their bedrooms at night for extra protection from smoke exposure.
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