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Safety tips for forest fire smoke preparedness and protection

The wildfire season has already had a record start, and experts warn smoke from the state’s largest fires can be as dangerous as the flames themselves.

In 2020, smoke from California wildfires blanketed the state in ash, soot and thick, hazy skies for weeks, with a few plumes from the fires reaching as far away as Europe. Already this year, smoke from the region’s fires has spread across much of the United States and Canada.

“The current threats of forest fires are a dramatic reminder that climate change is not only impacting the environment, but has also become an urgent health problem,” said the American Lung Assn. said in a recent article on forest fire smoke preparedness.

Researchers said the fires in the fall of last year could have caused as many as 3,000 more deaths and 5,000 more emergency room visits in California. A study has found that smoke from forest fires can contain “mind-blowing” amounts of harmful bacteria and fungi.

And new studies this year have found that smoke from burnt houses and cars can contain dangerous amounts of lead and other toxic chemicals, and that exposure to any type of forest fire smoke could be linked. at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

Smoke from wildfires can be especially dangerous for young children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung problems, said John Balmes, professor of medicine at UC San Francisco – but as fires in California escalates, many residents of all ages inhaling disturbing amounts of smoke.

“Forest fires are getting more frequent and more serious,” Balmes said, “and it all has to do with the dose inhaled.”

Here are some steps you can take to reduce the harmful effects of wildfire smoke:

Stay indoors

If you smell smoke, the best thing to do is go in and close the doors and windows, Balmes said. If there is particularly strong smoke, use damp towels or heavy tape to block leaks around doors, windows and other openings.

You can also create a “clean room” in your home or an area where you shut off the outside air and install a portable air purifier.

Check the AQI

Air quality information is easily accessible through and other sites that allow you to monitor conditions in your zip code.

Readings above 150 are considered unhealthy, although members of sensitive groups can often experience effects at lower levels. When the AQI reaches unhealthy or unsafe levels, people are advised to reduce or even avoid prolonged exertion and outdoor activity.

Invest in air purifiers and filters

Using air conditioners on the “recirculation” setting can prevent outside air from entering homes, Balmes said. Portable air purifiers with HEPA filters can offer even better protection against soot and smoke.

“You have to buy them before the fire season, or at least before there is a big fire in LA,” he said, “because once there is a fire and the smoke is bad, so there is a leak on them. “

Decent HEPA filters cost just under $ 200, Balmes said, but those who can’t afford the cost can create in-house protection by placing a MERV filter on a box fan.

Protective clothing

While the telltale ash and haze of fires can be damaging to people’s health, it’s the small particles that are of greatest concern, Balmes said.

“These particles travel down to the airways of the lungs and then there are even smaller particles inside that can even pass through the bloodstream,” he said. “It’s the really fine particles that cause the most health risks.”

If you have to go out, wear a face mask and change the mask every two weeks or as soon as it looks dirty.

Unfortunately, cloth masks worn for COVID-19 will not protect against smoke from wildfires, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. N-95 masks offer a much higher level of protection against forest fire smoke and against the coronavirus.

Make a plan

Experts continue to study the harmful effects of forest fire smoke, but there’s nothing stopping you from preparing for forest fires now.

Gather an emergency kit, make an escape plan, and watch out for nearby fires. Be prepared to evacuate if prompted.

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