Wildfires and Air Quality- Frequently Asked Questions
Date Updated: Aug. 2, 2017
Air quality continues to be impacted by regional wildfires and air pollution is now in the "unhealthy for some" range. Officials from Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) and Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency (Spokane Clean Air) are urging residents to take precautions to protect their health.
Read the joint release from Spokane Clean Air and Spokane Regional Health District here.
What are the dangers of wildfires?
Forest fires and wildfires threaten lives and destroy natural resources. Also, wildfire smoke can make anyone sick. Even someone who is healthy can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air. Breathing in smoke can have immediate health effects.
How can I monitor air quality in my area right now?
Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency: current air quality index in Spokane
Understanding the Air Quality Index
Washington Department of Ecology: Permanent, real-time air quality monitors in Washington display local air quality conditions. Explanation of color coded dots
Washington Smoke Blog
How do I keep myself and my family safe?
Create a Family Communication and Disaster Plan.
Because you and your family may not be together when a disaster hits, it’s important to create a communication plan to help you and your loved ones connect and get help. Complete a contact card for each family member. Have them keep these cards handy in a wallet, purse, or backpack. Templates for contact cards can be found at: http://emergency.cdc.gov/preparedness/plan/
- Identify an out-of-town contact, such as a friend or relative, who family members can call to let them know they are safe. It may be easier to make a long-distance phone call than to call across town, because phone lines can be jammed. An out-of-town contact may be in a better position to communicate among separated family members.
- Teach your family members how to text. It may seem like second nature to some of us, but not everyone texts. During an emergency it’s often easier to get a text message delivered rather than a phone call.
- Subscribe to an emergency alert system. Check with your local health department or emergency management agency to see if there is one offered for your area. Post emergency telephone numbers by home phones or save them in your cell phone (fire, police, ambulance, etc.).
- Teach children how and when to call 911 for help.
- Learn about your community’s warning signals. What do they sound like and what you should do when you hear them?
- Determine the best escape routes from your home. Find two ways out of each room.
- Find the safe spots in your home for each type of disaster. For example, during an earthquake you would want to practice “drop, cover, and hold on” under a sturdy desk or table. During a tornado, you would want to seek shelter in a lower level room without windows. During a wildfire, a designated emergency meeting should be a location outside the fire or hazard area.
- Show each family member how and when to turn off the water, gas, and electricity at the main switches.
- Teach each family member how to use the fire extinguisher, and show them where it’s kept.
- Practice your plan by quizzing your kids periodically and conduct fire and other emergency drills.
- Check your emergency supplies throughout the year to replace batteries, food, and water as needed.
What kind of fire plan should I have in place?
The National Ready, Set, Go! Program: seeks to share information with residents on what you can do to successfully prepare for a wild land fire. Speak with your local fire department about your area’s threat for wild land fire and learn more about the wild land urban interface (WUI). Fire season is an increasing threat and a year-round reality in many areas. Do your part to be prepared. The RSG! Program gives you simple, easy to follow tips.
- Ready – Be ready. Take personal responsibility and prepare long before the threat of a wildland fire so your home is ready in case of a fire. Create defensible space by clearing brush away from your home. Use fire-resistant landscaping and harden your home with fire-safe construction measures. Create your Personal Wild land Fire Action Plan: o Assemble emergency supplies and belongings in a safe place. Plan escape routes and make sure all those residing in the home know the plan of action and practice it regularly.
- Set – Situational awareness. Pack your emergency items. Know how to receive and stay aware of the latest news and information on the fire from local media, your local fire department and public safety.
- Go – Act early! Follow your Personal Wild land Fire Action Plan. Doing so will not only support your safety, but will allow firefighters to best maneuver resources to combat the fire.
What if a wildfire threatens?
- Remain calm. Listen to the radio and television for fire reports and evacuation information.
- Tell family and friends you may need to evacuate. Let them know where you are going.
- Load your car with emergency supplies, important records, and other valuables.
- Put on protective clothing to protect your body, lungs and face.
- Check your drinking water. Power outages and fluctuations in water pressure may affect drinking water systems.
What is wildfire smoke and can it make me sick?
Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from burning vegetation, building materials, and other materials. Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick. Even someone who is healthy can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air. Breathing in smoke can have immediate health effects, including:
- Trouble breathing normally
- Stinging eyes
- A scratchy throat
- Runny nose
- Irritated sinuses
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- An asthma attack
- Fast heartbeat
How can I limit my exposure to wildfire smoke?
- Pay attention to local air quality reports. When a wildfire occurs in your area, watch for news or health warnings about smoke. pay attention to public health messages and take extra safety measures such as avoiding spending time outdoors.
Air quality monitoring resources
- If you are told to stay indoors, stay indoors and keep your indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed unless it is very hot outside. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. Seek shelter elsewhere if you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed.
- Do not add to indoor pollution. When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns, such as candles and fireplaces. Do not vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home. Do not smoke tobacco or other products, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.
- Follow your doctor's advice about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.
- Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper "comfort" or "dust" masks commonly found at hardware stores trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from smoke. An “N95” mask, properly worn, will offer some protection. If you decide to keep a mask on hand, see the Respirator Fact Sheet provided by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
- Avoid smoke exposure during outdoor recreation. Wildfires and prescribed burns—fires that are set on purpose to manage land—can create smoky conditions. Before you travel to a park or forest, check to see if any wildfires are happening or if any prescribed burns are planned.
Is it safe for children or teens to participate in outdoor recreation when air quality is poor?
Populations at risk for acute respiratory problems from wildfire smoke include children, especially with exertion. When air quality conditions deteriorate into "unhealthy" ranges, the best thing to do is to limit outdoor exposure.
Will a face mask protect me from wildfire smoke?
Respirator masks labeled N95 or N100 provide some protection – they filter out fine particles but not hazardous gases (such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and acrolein). This type of mask can be found at many hardware and home repair stores and pharmacies.
- Choose an N95 or N100 mask that has two straps that go around your head. Don’t choose a one-strap paper dust mask or a surgical mask that hooks around your ears – these don’t protect you against the fine particles in smoke.
- Choose a size that will fit over your nose and under your chin. It should seal tightly to your face. These masks don’t come in sizes that fit young children.
- Don’t use bandanas or towels (wet or dry) or tissue held over the mouth and nose. These may relieve dryness but they won’t protect your lungs from wildfire smoke.
- Anyone with lung or heart disease, or who is chronically ill, should check with their medical provider before using any mask. Using respirator masks can make it harder to breathe, which may make existing medical conditions worse. The extra effort it takes to breathe through a respirator mask can make it uncomfortable to use them for very long. These masks should be used mostly by people who have to go outdoors.
- Respirator masks shouldn't be used on young children – they don’t seal well enough to provide protection. They also don’t seal well on people with beards.
How do I use my respirator mask?
Place the mask over your nose and under your chin, with one strap placed below the ears and one strap above. Adjust the mask so that air cannot get through at the edges.
- Pinch the metal part of the mask tightly over the top of your nose.
- The mask fits best on clean shaven skin.
- Throw away your mask when it gets harder to breathe through, if it gets damaged, or if the inside gets dirty. Use a new mask each day if you can.
- It is harder to breathe through a mask, so take breaks often if you work outside.
- If you feel dizzy or nauseated, go to a less smoky area, take off your mask and get medical help if you don’t feel better.
What do I do if I’m advised to evacuate?
Only take what you really need with you, like your cell phone, medicines, identification (like a passport or license), and cash. An Evacuation Checklist provided by the American Red Cross can help in the event of an evacuation.
- Make sure you have your car emergency kit.
- If you have time, turn off the gas, electricity, and water. Also unplug your appliances.
- Follow the roads that emergency workers recommend even if there's traffic. Other routes might be blocked.
What do the different evacuation levels indicate?
- Level 1 - evacuations are an alert. Residents should be aware of the danger that exists, and monitor local media outlets for information. Residents with special needs, or those with pets or livestock, should take note and make preparations for relocating family members, pets, and livestock
- Level 2 - evacuations indicate there is a significant risk to your area, and residents should either voluntarily relocate to a shelter or with family/friends outside of the area, or, be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
- Level 3 -means danger is currently affecting your area or is imminent, and you should leave immediately.
When is it safe to return home?
- Do not enter your home until fire officials say it is safe.
- Use caution when entering burned areas as hazards may still exist, including hot spots, which can flare up without warning.
- What do I do once a wildfire is over?
- Go to a designated public shelter if you have been told to evacuate or you feel it is unsafe to remain in your home.
- Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345)
- If you are with burn victims, or are a burn victim yourself, call 9-1-1 or seek help immediately; cool and cover burns to reduce chance of further injury or infection.
- If you remained at home, check the roof immediately after the fire danger has passed. Put out any roof fires, sparks or embers. Check the attic for hidden burning sparks.
- For several hours after the fire, maintain a "fire watch." Re-check for smoke and sparks throughout the house.
- If you have evacuated, do not enter your home until fire officials say it is safe.
- If a building inspector has placed a color-coded sign on the home, do not enter it until you get more information, advice and instructions about what the sign means and whether it is safe to enter your home.
- If you must leave your home because a building inspector says the building is unsafe, ask someone you trust to watch the property during your absence.
- Use caution when entering burned areas as hazards may still exist, including hot spots, which can flare up without warning.
- If you detect heat or smoke when entering a damaged building, evacuate immediately.
- If you have a safe or strong box, do not try to open it. It can hold intense heat for several hours. If the door is opened before the box has cooled, the contents could burst into flames.
- Avoid damaged or fallen power lines, poles and downed wires.
- Watch for ash pits and mark them for safety—warn family and neighbors to keep clear of the pits also.
- Watch animals closely and keep them under your direct control. Hidden embers and hot spots could burn your pets’ paws or hooves.
- Follow public health guidance on safe cleanup of fire ash and safe use of masks.
- Wet debris down to minimize breathing dust particles.
- Wear leather gloves and heavy soled shoes to protect hands and feet.
- Cleaning products, paint, batteries and damaged fuel containers need to be disposed of properly to avoid risk.
- Discard any food that has been exposed to heat, smoke or soot.
- Do NOT use water that you think may be contaminated to wash dishes, brush teeth, prepare food, wash hands, make ice or make baby formula.
- Remain calm. Pace yourself. You may find yourself in the position of taking charge of other people. Listen carefully to what people are telling you, and deal patiently with urgent situations first.
What are the potential health impacts from a wildfire?
- Injury- Puncture wounds, cuts, electrocution, animal bites
- Extreme heat
- Carbon Monoxide Poisoning- Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by burning gas, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel. Improperly ventilated appliances and engines, particularly in a tightly sealed or enclosed space, may allow carbon monoxide to accumulate to dangerous levels
- Foodborne Illness-Contaminated food and lack of refrigeration
- Waterborne Illness- Contamination of water sources
- Respiratory Illness- Exposure to particulates and ash
- Exposure to hazardous chemicals and materials
- Effects of utility disruption
- Downed power lines
- Extended loss of power
American Red Cross
Center for Disease Control & Prevention
Washington Department of Health
Resources Specific to Carbon Monoxide
Information about carbon monoxide
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