If it feels like California is burning, it’s not your imagination. Wildfire activity exploded in the state in August, from the Natchez Fire, burning at the northern edge of the state just a few hundred feet south of the Oregon border, to the Cloverdale Fire in Escondido, which threatened animals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park before it was brought under control earlier in the month.
In between, nearly 1.25 million acres have burned across California in the 2018 fire season through August 26. Just two fires—the Carr Fire near Redding and the Mendocino Complex Fire near Clear Lake—account for more than half the total acreage burned.
And the season’s not over yet.
You don’t have to be in a fire zone to be at risk for health problems associated with wildfire smoke, which can travel hundreds of miles from the fire scene. The Respiratory Care Board licenses and regulates respiratory care practitioners across the state, who provide care to patient suffering from lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, or cystic fibrosis, or may be premature infants whose lungs have not yet fully developed. These patients are at the highest risk from wildfire smoke.
But even healthy adults can feel the effects when smoke levels are high. Common ailments include coughing, irritated sinuses, sore throat, and chest pain.
While you can build defensible space around your home to protect your possessions, there are steps you can take to protect your body. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers a guide of steps to take to decrease your risk from wildfire smoke.
- Check local air quality reports and pay attention to public health messages about safety measures. Many California air quality districts have a presence on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, where it may be most convenient for consumers to keep track of their messages.
- Keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. If you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed, seek shelter in a designated evacuation center or away from the affected area.
- Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution, such as smoking, vacuuming, and burning candles, fireplaces, and gas stoves.
- Follow the advice of your doctor or other healthcare provider about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease. Consider evacuating if you are having trouble breathing. Check with your doctor or respiratory therapist if your symptoms worsen. You can check the status of your doctor’s license at the Medical Board of California’s website, and you can check the status of your respiratory care provider’s license at the Respiratory Care Board’s website.
- Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke.
- Evacuate from the path of wildfires. Listen to the news to learn about current evacuation orders. Follow the instructions of local officials about when and where to evacuate. Take only essential items with you. Follow designated evacuation routes—others may be blocked—and plan for heavy traffic. It may be more than just your lungs you’re saving!
Even after a wildfire is contained, it may take some time for local air quality to return to the healthy range. Minimize breathing dust particles when clearing debris or rebuilding, discard any food items that have been exposed to heat, smoke, or soot, and do not use any water that may be contaminated.
Your local air quality district will tell you: If you smell smoke, you’re breathing in particulates. But by following the above tips, you’ll be breathing a little more free and easy.