Wildfires have broken out across the United States on an unprecedented scale, with 77 large complexes of fires engulfing 3 million acres in a matter of weeks.
While the fires themselves only cover a small portion of California, Oregon and Washington, at least 24 people have died as of September 11. And the smoke they are producing is creating a widespread health problem.
Satellite images show smoke covering much of the Pacific coastline, with major cities there seeing very high Air Quality Index numbers, indicating unhealthy air. That’s a problem for the elderly and young children, as well as those with asthma and Covid-19 or other breathing conditions.
“The weather and geography in the Bay Area and valleys of California can also trap the smoke close to the surface, which can keep the smoke trapped near the ground at certain times of the day in certain locations where people live and breathe,” said CNN senior meteorologist Brandon Miller.
Here’s some advice for reducing your exposure risk and keeping yourself and your family safe.
Wildfire smoke includes particles from burning vegetation and building materials mixed with gases. If your eyes feel like they’re stinging, smoke exposure could also be inflicting other damage. Particles could be getting into your respiratory system.
Exposure can cause chest pain, a fast heartbeat or wheezing or bring on an asthma attack. Besides coughing and trouble breathing, many people experience symptoms similar to a sinus infection, such as headaches, sore throat, a runny nose and even tiredness, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wildfire smoke can be especially harmful to the elderly, pregnant women, children and those with chronic heart and lung diseases. Because children breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults and their airways are still developing, they may experience more severe symptoms.
Some people may even experience illnesses like bronchitis due to the fine particles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Those with asthma or lung disease living in wildfire country should consult their doctors.
Staying healthy when it’s smoky
If you see a haze, smell smoke or know of a wildfire in your area or a place you plan to visit, check the Air Quality Index to see whether you need to limit your time outdoors.
When advised to stay inside, keep your windows and doors closed. It’s OK to keep the air conditioner running, but the CDC recommends making sure the filter is clean, and close the fresh-air intake to prevent smoke from entering.
It’s also important to keep indoor air clean by not burning candles, using gas stoves or fireplaces, or smoking. Running a vacuum can also keep particles circulating in the air.
Dust masks actually trap large particles and don’t protect your lungs from smoke inhalation, but a mask that uses a filtering respirator can offer some protection. The CDC also has tips for how effective different types of masks can be, depending on your exposure.
Even if the air outside or in your home looks clear, it may not be free of harmful microscopic particles, especially if the wildfires and smoke persist for weeks.
Pediatric pulmonologists at the Breathing Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado also recommended changing your clothes if you’ve been outside, rinsing out red, irritated eyes and drinking fluids to keep from being dehydrated. Parents should seek emergency care for their children if they experience real difficulty breathing or a change in their level of consciousness.
There is a low risk of long-term effects of wildfire smoke exposure for healthy individuals.