Blowin’ smoke: Wildfires’ impact on air quality is the greatest threat for most

Wildfires typically occur at the peak of summer when temperatures are sweltering and dry winds are more frequent. Most commonly caused by lightning, wildfires pose threats to property, ecosystem integrity, wildlife habitats and life itself.

For most people, smoke is the more imminent danger. It's a major health risk even for people who live hundreds of miles away.

Wildfire smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gasses and fine particles (PM2.5), which make the air outside and inside your home unhealthy to breathe. It can cause burning eyes, runny nose, sore throat, trouble breathing, and illnesses such as bronchitis. It can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases and is linked to premature death. Seek medical treatment if you experience severe symptoms. 

Wildfire smoke affects air quality
Fine particles in the outdoor air can enter your home through open windows and doors and can infiltrate cracks and small openings. Smoke can also enter through mechanical ventilation devices such as fans that vent to the outdoors, and through heating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

How to reduce your exposure
Reducing your exposure to smoke is important for everyone’s health—especially children, older adults, pregnant women and those with preexisting health conditions. Here’s what you can do to reduce your smoke exposure:

  • Keep windows and doors closed.
  • Close blinds and use fans and air conditioners to stay cool.
  • Set HVAC systems with fresh air intake to recirculate mode and close the outdoor air damper.
  • Close the outdoor air damper on window air conditioners and make sure the seal between the unit and the window is as tight as possible.
  • Use a portable air cleaner or high-efficiency filter to remove fine particles from the air.
  • Seek out locations where the air is filtered, such as your local mall or recreation center.
  • Avoid smoking cigarettes; using gas, propane or wood-burning stoves; spraying aerosols; frying or broiling food; burning candles or incense and vacuuming. These activities create more fine particles indoors.
  • Avoid strenuous activity to reduce the amount of smoke you inhale.
  • Have a supply of N95 respirators on hand.
  • Take similar precautions when cleaning up wildfire ash.
  • Air out your home once the air quality improves.

To check the air quality in your area, purchase a portable air quality monitor or use the Air Quality Index (AQI).

Is it smoke exposure or COVID-19?
Protecting your health by reducing your exposure to wildfire smoke is even more important because of COVID-19. Some symptoms, like dry cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing can be caused by both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19. Fever, chills, diarrhea, and muscle or body aches are not related to smoke exposure. Use the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s COVID-19 Self-Checker to help you determine whether you need further assessment or testing for COVID-19.