Preparing for wildfire smoke
Like many areas in the U.S., the Spokane region is experiencing more unhealthy air quality days due to wildfires.
Wildfire smoke is a complex mix of gases and particles. The microscopic particles can get into your eyes and lungs, causing minor to serious health effects.
Microscopic smoke particles can stay suspended in the air and carried to distant locations, which is why smoke from fires burning hundreds of miles away can affect local air quality.
Smoke can be visible in the atmosphere but not necessarily concentrated near ground-level, where we breathe and where air pollution is measured. Therefore, there are times when visibility is affected by smoke, but the actual pollution readings are lower than might be expected.
Although we can’t predict the severity of wildfire smoke impacts from year to year, we should prepare. This begins with knowing why smoke is harmful, who is at greatest risk, and how to reduce your exposure to smoke.
What is in smoke and who is most at risk from breathing smoke?
Smoke is a complex mix of gases and fine particles. Microscopic particles (PM2.5) are most concerning to health. The particles are inhaled deep into the lungs, scarring and damaging delicate lung tissue. They can also enter the bloodstream.
Inhaling smoke is not good for anyone, even healthy people. According to the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) people most likely to have health problems from breathing smoke are listed below. These individuals need to follow their breathing management plans, keep medications on hand and contact their health provider if necessary.
- Persons with or recovering from COVID-19 may be at greater risk because of compromised lung and heart function.
- People with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including bronchitis and emphysema.
- People with respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, acute bronchitis, bronchiolitis, colds, or flu.
- People with existing heart or circulatory problems, such as dysrhythmias, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, and angina.
- People with a prior history of heart attack or stroke.
- Infants and children under 18 because their lungs and airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.
- Older adults (over age 65) because they are more likely to have unrecognized heart or lung diseases.
- Pregnant women because both the mother and fetus are at increased risk of health effects.
- People who smoke because they are more likely to already have lower lung function and lung diseases.
- People with diabetes because they are more likely to have an undiagnosed cardiovascular disease.
What symptoms should I be concerned about?
According to the Washington State Department of Health, smoke-related health effects include:
- Coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes, and runny nose.
- If you have heart or lung disease, smoke might make your symptoms worse.
- People who have heart disease might experience chest pain, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
- If you have a pre-existing respiratory condition such as asthma, COPD (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema), or allergies, smoke may worsen symptoms (inability to breathe normally, cough with or without mucus, chest discomfort, wheezing, and shortness of breath).
- Seek medical attention when experiencing severe symptoms, such as chest pain or difficulty breathing. Dial 911 for emergency assistance if symptoms are serious.
- Spokane Regional Health District provided an update on COVID-19 symptoms and wildfire smoke in June 2022, stating “As transmission of COVID-19 continues in our community, it’s important to be aware many of the symptoms are similar to those listed above. Symptoms unique to COVID-19 are listed below. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, even those that seem minor, you should test for COVID-19. Free at-home tests can be ordered by visiting the testing section at covid.srhd.org.”
- Increase in severity of cough
- New loss of taste or smell
- Nausea or vomiting
How can I reduce my exposure to smoke?
- Check SpokaneCleanAir.org for the current Air Quality Index. The AQI is updated every hour. A resource for statewide wildfires and smoke updates is the Washington Smoke blog.
- Limit or avoid time outdoors when the air quality is unhealthy. Check out this updated for 2023 Children and Youth Activities Guide for Air Quality. A helpful resource for parents, guardians, and youth program providers!
- Keep windows and doors closed until air quality improves. When the AQI is in the good/green range, open windows for fresh air. Also, pay attention to the heat indoors. If you don’t have air conditioning and it’s hot, seek shelter at a friend’s or family member’s home, or a public space.
- Improve the filtration in your home by using an air conditioner, set to re-circulate not fresh-air intake. Make sure to change the filter as the manufacturer recommends. It may fill faster when smoke is prolonged.
- Create a “cleaner-air room” in your home using a HEPA filter and change the filter more often when it’s smoky. Some room air cleaners can help reduce particulate levels indoors, as long as they are the right type and size for your home. If you don’t have a HEPA filter, make a DIY box fan filter. See resources in the next section for instructional sheets.
- Avoid adding to indoor pollution by not smoking or using candles, incense, sprays, fireplaces, or gas stoves. Don’t broil or fry food. Don’t dust or use a vacuum unless it has a HEPA filter.
- Check your vehicle air filters, make sure they are HEPA equivalent and change them more frequently when it is smoky.
- If you have children in summer camps, sports, or other outdoor activities, ask the program providers what their plans are for smoky conditions. Will outdoor activity be adjusted when the Air Quality Index is over 100? Review this updated for 2023 Children and Youth Activities Guide for Air Quality.
- Pets can be affected by wildfire smoke too.
- NEW! Washington Children and Youth Activities Guide for Air Quality, June 2023
- NEW! EPA’s Wildfire Smoke fact sheet: At-Risk Groups of People, June 2023
- Create a “cleaner air room” in your home
- Improving Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality
- Chart of days when PM2.5 (smoke) failed air quality standards (1999-current)
- Why is Coco Red? Follow Coco and his friends on a new adventure as they learn about wildfire smoke and how it can affect air quality and health. This book is for all children, especially those with asthma, and their caretakers.
WA Smoke Info Blog – a resource providing maps and information on current air quality, fires and smoke affecting Washington residents and visitors.
WA DOH wildfire smoke toolkit with resources for schools, etc.
EPA’s Smoke Sense App – Smoke Sense is a crowdsourcing, citizen science research project developed by EPA researchers focused on increasing public awareness and engagement related to wildfire smoke health risks. Specifically, EPA wants to understand the extent that exposure to wildland fire smoke affects health and productivity, discover what steps people are willing to take to reduce their exposure, and develop health risk communication strategies that improve public health when there is wildfire smoke.
Do-it-yourself Home Box Fan Filter – a one-minute video tutorial
Wildfire smoke resources in other languages
The Washington State Department of Health provides the following resources:
- Youth Activities Guide FAQs: English
Wildfire Smoke Guidance for Canceling Outdoor Events or Activities and Closing Schools: English
- Summary Wildfire Smoke Guidance for Cancelling Outdoor Public Events or Activities: English
- Summary Wildfire Smoke Guidance for Closing Schools: English
Smoke from fires can be dangerous flyers:
Smoke From Fires (DOH Webpage) in Other Languages:
Indoor air quality and wildfire smoke – Is your home ready?
Wildfire smoke season is approaching. It’s never too early to prepare. Since a lot of time is spent indoors, you can take steps now to reduce wildfire smoke in your home.