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Wildfire Smoke

Preparing for wildfire smoke

Like much of the western U.S., the Spokane area has experienced more frequent unhealthy air quality days caused by wildfire smoke.

Often the wildfire smoke that affects our local air quality is from fires burning hundreds or thousands of miles away.

While we can’t predict what the smoke impacts will be each summer, we can be prepared. It starts with understanding who is at greatest risk and what can be done to reduce exposure no matter your risk level. This is as important as ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who is most at risk from breathing wildfire smoke?

Inhaling smoke is not good for anyone, even healthy people. According to health experts from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) people most likely to have health problems from breathing smoke are listed below. These vulnerable individuals need to follow their breathing management plans, keep medications on hand and contact their health provider if necessary.

  • According to the DOH, people sensitive to smoke are also most at risk for COVID-19. Persons with, or recovering from, COVID-19 may be more at risk for negative health effects from wildfire smoke exposure 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.
  • Pets can also be affected by wildfire smoke.

What symptoms should I be concerned about?

According to DOH, some respiratory symptoms including cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing, are common to both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19. Other 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.
  • If you have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath, it is best to treat it like it could be COVID-19. Protect others by staying home. If you are concerned about your health, call your health care provider to discuss COVID-19 testing and other possible reasons for your illness.

How can I reduce my exposure to smoke?

  • Check SpokaneCleanAir.org for the current Air Quality Index. The index is updated every hour to incorporate the most recent hour of data. Another great resource for statewide air quality and wildfire updates is the Washington Smoke blog https://wasmoke.blogspot.com/. During periods of poor air quality, know when to limit or avoid your time outdoors.
  • The best way to protect you and your family this year will be to stay indoors and keep indoor air as clean as possible. It might not be safe to go to public spaces to seek cleaner and cooler indoor air away from home this year due to COVID-19. With the congregation of people at these settings, there is an increased risk of COVID-19. Check in advance to see if these places are open and be prepared for lower capacity, to physically distance, and wear a cloth face covering.
  • Keep windows and doors closed. Track the air quality and open your windows for fresh air when the air quality improves. Pay attention to the heat indoors. if you don’t have air conditioning and it’s getting too hot, seek shelter a family member’s home. If not an option, seek relief somewhere where you can social distance.
  • Improve the filtration in your home. Run an air conditioner, set it to re-circulate and close the 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 DIY video link on left.)
  • Avoid adding to indoor pollution. Don’t smoke or use candles, incense, sprays, fireplaces, or gas stoves. Don’t broil or fry food. Don’t vacuum unless your vacuum has a HEPA filter, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home.
  • Check your vehicle(s) air filter, make sure it is HEPA equivalent and change it more frequently when it is smoky.
  • Pets can be affected by wildfire smoke too.

More information/Resources

How to prepare for wildfire smoke during COVID-19

Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, Spokane Regional Health District and Washington Department of Health discuss how to prepare for wildfire smoke during COVID-19.