Reviewed: September 29, 2019
In many parts of the United States, wildfires can cause widespread damage and impact health. The smoky and ashy conditions during wildfires, and the windy conditions after wildfires, pose health risks for everyone, especially for children, older adults, and people with heart or lung diseases. While the impact from wildfires is most acute close to the source, wildfire smoke (and its health effects) can travel 1000s of miles, so don’t take your air quality for granted no matter where you live. While you will not be able to control what is going on outside, there are things you can do to keep your indoor air as clean as possible.
We want to make sure you and your family stay healthy indoors and outdoors.
Before a wildfire, get prepared:
- Invest in a mechanical air cleaner with a fibre or fabric filter. You will need high-efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA 99.7%). Filters should be tightly sealed in their containers and cleaned or replaced regularly. Make sure to select the right size filter for the size of your room. Room air cleaners should filter two or three times the room volume per hour.
- Know your levels. Air Quality Index considers levels of 101 and 150 particulate materials as unhealthy for people who have sensitive respiratory systems. Readings of 151 to 200 are considered unhealthy for all; 201 to 300 is “very unhealthy,” and levels of 301 to 500 are considered hazardous. Apps like Breezometer can help you monitor outdoor air real-time.
- Have particulate respirators (at a minimum) on hand. These respirators only protect against particles. They do not protect against chemicals, gases, or vapors, and are intended only for low hazard levels and not for long-term use. Buy masks labelled N-95 or higher They should have two separate straps that go completely around your head and an adjustable nose piece. if you have existing lung or heart issues you may need a different type of mask, so check with your doctor. Remember – these masks are not intended for children.
During a wildfire, if you are able to stay in your home, keep indoor air as clean as possible:
- Avoid vacuuming, smoking, burning candles or incense, and frying or broiling foods that produce a lot of smoke inside.
- Keep windows and doors closed unless it is extremely hot.
- If you have an air conditioner, run it with the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean. If you have a “whole house fan”, turn it off when the air quality is poor unless it’s extremely hot.
- When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors even though you may not be able to see them. If you have heart or lung disease, are an older adult, or have children, talk with your doctor about whether and when you should leave the area.
If you have to go outdoors:
- Wear a particulate respirator rated N-95 or higher. Paper “dust” masks DO NOT provide protection against smoke.
After a wildfire when you can safely return to your home or the air is good enough to begin outdoor work, clean up ash safely and maintain good indoor air quality:
- Air out your home when air quality improves.
- Spray areas lightly with water and clean using damp cloths. Direct ash-filled water to ground areas and away from the runoff system.
- Vacuum with genuine HEPA filters or use a high-quality shop/industrial vacuum outfitted with a high-efficiency particulate filter and a disposable collection filter bag. Ash can be bagged and put into trash cans, so it will not be stirred up again into the air. Special attachments can be used to clean ash from gutters so that it will not blow back over outdoor spaces.
- If you are using a broom, sweep gently so you don’t stir up ash. NEVER use a leaf blower.
- Everyone should avoid skin contact with ash, and no one with heart or lung conditions should handle ash cleanup.
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