Air Quality During Wildfires: How to Stay Safe
Even if you are far enough away from a wildfire that you cannot see smoke or the fire itself, the air in your local area can still be unsafe. Understanding and measuring wildfire air quality goes beyond visible smoke. Smoke contains particulates that are too small to see, but this can be especially dangerous because they're small enough to enter your lungs.
In addition, the smoke from wildfires contains toxic substances that can have both immediate and long-term health effects, especially in those who are sensitive to smoke and have lung conditions that can cause breathing difficulties.
How Does Wildfire Smoke Affect the Air?
The air quality during fires can affect local air quality conditions for hundreds or even thousands of miles away The most important thing to understand about wildfire smoke and air quality is that you do not have to see visible smoke for the air quality to be dangerous. Local media and weather stations can give you general information about trends affecting air quality from fires, but to keep you and your family safe, it is important to have information that is relevant to the immediate area surrounding your home.
This will allow you to plan and take action as needed. That is why the AQI and AirLink Monitor should be an important part of your safety plan. If you live in wildfire territory, this is as essential as having a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector in your home.
Can Wildfire Smoke Make You Sick?
It is important to monitor the air quality during wildfires because it can be harmful or dangerous even before you can see or smell the smoke. Smoke from western wildfires can drift as far as the East Coast, depending on weather conditions and the size of fires.
This means that someone in New York can be affected by wildfires on the West Coast. That’s why monitoring air quality (using tools like Davis’ AirLink Monitor) is especially important for those who have lung conditions, are prone to asthma, have immune system disorders, heart conditions, and other health conditions that could be affected by air quality.
How Do I Monitor the Air Quality During a Wildfire?
Many factors can affect wildfire air quality, such as local weather conditions, humidity, and the amount of fire control. Davis air quality monitors provide you with up-to-the-minute information on particulates from smoke in your area.
You can also view the data on your smartphone or PC using the WeatherLink app. It provides a handy graph that allows you to see whether particulate levels have gone up or down so that you can make plans. The data shows a scale that helps you determine whether the levels are mild, moderate, or pose a significant threat.
What can you do about it?
If you live where wildfires threaten, you are well aware of the need to minimize fire risk to your property. You've gotten rid of flammables around your house, created a defensible space, and are careful with any flames or sources of ignition. You are prepared to evacuate when ordered.
But as we learned last year, wildfires that are far enough away that there is no threat to your property present a risk to your health, and it is one you can prepare for. EVERYONE who breathes in the western U.S. can do one more thing: get your AirLink air quality monitors installed.
Researchers at San Jose State University Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center are confirming what we all suspect: in a recent tweet they said the 2021 wildfire season will be “grim.”
The west is experiencing a megadrought, possibly the worst in 1,200 years. California, in particular, is dry as a bone. Plenty of dry fuel awaits the spark, the tossed cigarette, the lightning strike, the gender reveal party fail, and we’re back to the hot and horrific nightmare scenario of multiple wildfires throughout the state. Once again, it’s likely the news will be full of stories of loss of wildlands, businesses, animals, homes, and, worst of all, lives. Many costs of wildfires can be quantified, such as firefighting costs and structure loss. But harder to quantify are the costs to public health. The California Council on Science and Technology says these costs are likely to be in the billions of dollars and might even exceed the costs of quantifiable categories.
Last year we in the SF Bay Area experienced eerie orange skies caused by smoke from distant wildfires. During a string of days with very high AQIs, it was a surprising relief to see that the AQI on the orange days was not as bad as it would appear, thanks to our marine layer.
Wildfires burning even miles away can affect your health. The flames of the devastating Camp Fire that destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise in November 2018 were almost 200 miles away from San Francisco. But during the blaze, San Franciscans breathed air with close to nine times the normal amount of PM2.5 particles. And it looks like all particulate matter (PM) is not created equal, in terms of its negative health effects. Researchers have recently determined that wildfire smoke is even more dangerous than other forms of air pollution. While many other sources of air pollution dump microscopic particulate matter into the air, researchers found that the same particulate matter in wildfire smoke led to an increase in hospital visits for asthma symptoms over particulate matter from other sources.
The smoke from a wildfire can travel, sink, rise, and linger miles distant from the actual flames. It can cause your nose to run, your eyes to burn, and exacerbate respiratory issues like asthma and bronchitis. Every breath you take of that air pulls microscopic particles deep into your lungs. We don't yet know enough about the health impacts of wildfire smoke, but it appears that widespread cardiopulmonary outcomes due to smoke are the most significant cause of death and illness from wildfires.
What can you do to protect yourself and your family against wildfire-caused air pollution? The CDC has a checklist of steps you can take to minimize harm from inhaling wildfire smoke.
Know the quality of the air you breathe
Top among their recommendations is to check local air quality reports. We’ll add on to that recommendation by suggesting that you check the air quality index (AQI) outside your home, rather than that measured some distance away. Microclimates, and therefore air quality, can vary substantially even over relatively short distances. With AirLink, you can know the AQI right where you live.
AirLink’s NowCast feature, which adjusts for quickly changing air quality, and wood smoke adjustment will give you a very accurate indication of what you are actually breathing, right now, right here.
When the AQI is high, you will want to stay indoors, especially if you have young or elderly family members or are in any susceptible group. The CDC also recommends that you keep the indoor air as clean as possible and avoid activities that increase indoor pollution. But how can you know? You can change the filter in your air intake, keep the windows closed, leave the gas range off, and the fireplace unlit. But the way to really know the effectiveness of these steps is to install a second AirLink inside your home. Now you can see clearly the difference between the air quality outside and inside. (We've made this option a little easier with our AirLink 2 pack.)
With AirLink, you will be able to access your own real-time, hyper-local AQI on your phone anytime. You will have the actual data at your fingertips to make decisions about when to shelter inside, when to turn on the air purifier, and whether that air purifier is effective.
Help keep your community safe
When you share your AQI on the WeatherLink Air Quality Map, you provide a valuable service to your neighbors, community leaders, and public health officials. Being able to see pockets of poor air quality, for example, can help your neighbor decide if, where, and when to go for a run. Seeing data from many monitors can help public health officials prepare for an increase in asthma attacks.
Make your home a safe haven
Having confidence that your home is indeed a safe haven can take some of the anxiety out of facing wildfire season. As this dire wildfire season rapidly approaches, you can be prepared to make the right decisions to minimize your risks by knowing your inside and outside air quality.
For more indepth information about what to expect for summer 2021, you might want to check out our sister company, Earth Networks' Summer Outlook Webinar, coming up later this month. It will cover all the questions about this summer: how hot will it be where you live, which areas will be most affected by upcoming summer weather, and more about precipitation (and the lack thereof) and severe storms.