Wildfire Safety: How to Protect Yourself from Bad Air Quality & Smoke

wildfire in the distance with smoky conditions

In recent weeks, cities across the northeastern United States have faced the effects of smoke and poor air quality. As wildfires rage in Canada, the smoke has lingered into states like New York and New Jersey, forcing many people to stay indoors. Though you can’t control the effects of a wildfire, there are many things you can do to take precautions for your health. In this article, we’ll review some of the steps you can take to protect yourself from bad air quality and how to breathe safely during wildfire smoke situations.

Protecting yourself during wildfire season

In the United States, wildfires typically occur from June to August, when heat is bearing down, and many states are facing their driest periods of the year. When it comes to staying safe during wildfire season, there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself. If you’ve been advised that a wildfire is affecting your area or you’re getting ready for wildfire season, here’s how you can prepare:

  • Stay alert and follow official guidance: The first step to preparation is having a way to keep track of updates and relying on a credible weather forecast. Usually, you’ll be advised about danger through local alerts, so it’s a good idea to monitor the news and have a way to access information about wildfires.
  • Have an evacuation plan: If a wildfire threatens your home or property, your safety is always the first priority. Make sure you’re familiar with evacuation routes, and if possible, keep copies (or originals) of important personal documents in a safe and secure space (like a sealed envelope) to bring with you.
  • Keep supplies handy: Regardless of whether a wildfire is expected to impact your area, you should try to always maintain emergency supplies such as batteries, canned food, water, flashlights, and radio devices in the event that you lose power unexpectedly.
  • Protecting yourself from bad air quality 

    man wearing face mask to protect himself from smoky air

    While there are many steps you can have in place in the event of a nearby wildfire, sometimes, effects can be felt hundreds of miles away. When it comes to wildfire smoke, you should always prioritize your safety. Hazardous toxins can linger in the air, and you don’t want to expose your lungs and respiratory system to wildfire smoke for extended periods of time. In the same way that pollution and bad air quality can pose a risk to your body, wildfire smoke can also affect the air you breathe, which is why it’s important to take the following precautions:

    • Stock up on N95 masks: Personal protective equipment (PPE) was used during the pandemic to minimize the spread of COVID-19, and these supplies can come in handy during the event of a wildfire. Make sure to have masks that are tested to N95 (or N99) standards, meaning they are 95% or 99% effective at filtering particles, respectively.
    • Change your mask when needed: As effective as N95 and N99 masks are for protecting against smoke, you should replace your mask if the inside gets dirty, you have trouble breathing, or if it becomes damaged in any way.
    • Change your air conditioning settings: If possible, be sure to adjust the air conditioning in your car or home to a refiltration setting to avoid the contamination of outdoor wildfire smoke circling into the air you breathe. 
    • Use an air purifier or HEPA filter: Many air purifiers are equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which are intended to remove ultrafine particles from the air. This can be helpful in removing toxic particles or hazardous effects from wildfire smoke that may enter your home. Be sure to keep these purifiers toward the center of rooms or near where air may enter (if there are doors and windows) rather than close to heat sources or furniture. 
    • Stay indoors: Prepare your home with as many supplies as you can if you’re expected to be impacted by wildfire smoke to reduce leaving the house unnecessarily. Ideally, find a room without access to windows or doors, and be sure to pay close attention to children and pets.
    • Cover cracks in doors and windows: If your home has any doors or windows with cracks or crevices that allow outdoor air indoors, cover these areas with a damp towel to minimize the contaminated air that enters your home. 
    • Spend time in areas with filtered air: If you’re not able to equip your home with some of these precautions, consider going to indoor areas with effective filtration units in place, such as a public library.
    • Stay hydrated: Ensure you’re drinking enough water regularly in the event that you’re exposed to wildfire smoke.

    Two workers outdoors in post-wildfire smoky conditions

    Minimizing the effects of wildfire smoke

    While you can’t always control when or where you are during the effects of a wildfire, you can take steps to minimize the risk that poor air quality can pose to your body. The biggest thing to remember is that preparation is key; having a Grab + Go Box on hand is a great starting point. By having your supplies and plan ready ahead of time, you can help create a sense of peace of mind, keeping yourself healthy and safe in the event of wildfire smoke or bad air quality.