California is facing a wildfire season of historic magnitude.  To date, 1.4 million acres have burned – in comparison with the 56,000 acres that had burned by this point last summer. Sparked by a rare lightning storm and stoked by hot, windy weather, the fires have expanded quickly into the Sierra Nevada, southern California, and regions north, east and south of San Francisco. Faced with blistering heat, raging fires, poor air quality, and ongoing pandemic concerns, many residents are left unsure of their safest options.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends the following guidelines for fire safety:

  • If there is an active fire in your area and it is very close to your house: It may be best to evacuate. Fires can spread quickly and the smoke plume can make it difficult to see in an evacuation. In addition, it can be nearly impossible to keep dense smoke from building up in the indoor air. Pay close attention to local emergency alerts to know when to evacuate.
  • If there is an active fire close enough to cause high smoke levels, but the fire is not threatening your home: Smoke may enter your home, making it harder to breathe. Learn more about what to do in this situation and how to prepare for it. If there is an active fire in your area, follow your local news, EPA’s AirNow website, or your state air quality website for up-to-date information.
  • You may hear that smoke from a far-away wildfire has spread to your community, even if it is thousands of miles away. While this can happen, the amount of smoke that may reach your community from such a distance is probably very small, and may be overshadowed by local sources of particle pollution. In this situation, you can monitor your local outdoor air quality on AirNow.gov and manage your indoor air quality as you normally would.

How harmful is wildfire smoke to indoor air?

Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. Those tiny particles can easily slip into your home through windows, doors and ventilation systems. If they get into your eyes, nose, or mouth they can cause a multitude of health problems, including runny nose, burning eyes, and respiratory illnesses. The strong link between covid complications and poor air quality adds another layer of concern for residents affected by wildfires.

Is there any way to remove smoke from indoor air?

Yes! There are a number of things you can do to keep your indoor air smoke-free.

Close your windows. Typically, keeping your windows open is a good way to provide ventilation.  But, when there are wildfires in the region, closing your windows will help keep the smoke out.

Clean frequently and thoroughly. Even though smoke particles are small, they eventually drop out of the air and settle onto surfaces.  Mopping your floors is better than vacuuming, which can blow the smoke particles back into the air. Washing your clothes and linens regularly will also help keep the smoke out of your home.

Shower often. Smoke particles can settle on your hair and skin.  Taking showers every time you re-enter your home will help minimize the smoke you bring in.

Purchase an air purifier with a True HEPA filter. The particles in wildfire smoke are generally between 0.4 and 0.7 microns. True-HEPA air filters are exceptionally good at removing particles of that size from the air. In fact, the EPA recommends that residents in areas vulnerable to wildfires purchase an air purifier before a fire emergency occurs. Because wildfire smoke is made up of many different hazardous pollutants, be sure to look for high quality air purifiers that are equipped to deal with gasses and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).