Wildfire Smoke Health & Safety - Questions & Answers

 

CURRENT FIRE STATUS:

 

 AM I IN DANGER?

 

 PROTECTING YOURSELF AND YOUR FAMILY

 

 WHAT IF I OR MY FAMILY GETS SICK

 

EVACUATION

 

 SMOKE IN GENERAL

CURRENT FIRE STATUS

What new fires are starting up and what’s the status on the current fires?

Check http://fire.ak.blm.gov/predsvcs/intel.php for a daily update in fire status. The Department of Natural Resources also has a website with a number of links, http://www.dnr.state.ak.us/forestry/fire/current.htm.

How can I see if the weather will continue to impact the fires?

The National Weather Service, Alaska site, has useful information about hazards: http://pafg.arh.noaa.gov/hazards.php.

Is there any way to see the fires or smoke impacts?

There are at least two webcams in the Fairbanks area:

Where can I learn more information about the fires?

  • Call the Alaska Interagency Fire Information Center for questions about fires in Alaska - (907) 356-5511.
  • Visit the Alaska Fire Service Predictive Services page: http://fire.ak.blm.gov/predsvcs/intel.php
  • Radio: Most local radio stations will provide regular updates
  • TV: Most local TV stations will provide regular updates

AM I IN DANGER?

What is the health threat from fires and smoke?

Smoke from wildfires is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and other plant materials. Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. Please visit the following websites for more information:

How can I tell if the smoke is affecting my family or me?

  • Smoke can cause 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, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and fatigue; if so, consult your doctor.
  • Smoke may worsen symptoms for people who have pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as respiratory allergies, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), in the following ways:
    • Inability to breathe normally
    • Cough with or without mucus
    • Chest discomfort
    • Wheezing and shortness of breath
  • When smoke levels are high enough, even healthy people may experience some of these symptoms. Consult your doctor if your symptoms worsen.

I have a head cold; will I be affected more?

Most persons who are exposed to thick smoke will not have health problems. Many factors play into a person’s susceptibility to smoke. These factors include the level, extent, and duration of exposure, age, and individual susceptibility. A cold or any lung illness may increase your susceptibility to smoke impacts.

Can I tell whether or not the air is healthy by visibility?

A guide prepared by the State of Montana to help you decide if the air is healthy or when you don’t have another source of information:

Visibility Range
Categories
Cautionary Statements

10 miles and up

Good

None

6 miles to 9 miles

Moderate

Unusually sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion.

3 miles to 5 miles

Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups

People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion.

1.5 to 2.5 miles

Unhealthy

People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion. Everyone else should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion.

0.75 to 1.4 miles

Very Unhealthy

People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid all physical activity outdoors. Everyone else should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion.

0.75 miles or less

Hazardous

Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors; people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should remain indoors and keep activity levels low.

To help get a better estimate:

  1. Face away from the sun.
  2. Determine the limit of your visible range by looking for targets at known distances (miles).
  3. Visible range is that point at which even high contrast objects totally disappear.

Who is at most risk of having a health impact from fire?

  • People with heart or lung disease, such as congestive heart failure, angina, COPD, emphysema, or asthma are at higher risk of having health problems than healthy people.
  • Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke, possibly because they are more likely to have heart or lung diseases than younger people.
  • Children are more likely to be affected by health threats from smoke because their airways are still developing and because they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. Children also are more likely to be active increasing inhalation of smoke particles.
  • Smokers already have compromised lung function. Exposure to high levels of particulate can exacerbate their condition, leading to chest pain, trouble breathing and other respiratory symptoms more quickly than in non-smokers.

If I am briefly exposed to a thick smoke, should I be concerned with health risks?

Not everyone who is exposed to thick smoke will have health problems. The level and duration of exposure, age, individual susceptibility, including the presence or absence of pre-existing lung or heart disease, and other factors play significant roles in determining whether or not someone will experience smoke-related health problems. Most healthy adults will recover quickly from smoke exposures and will not suffer long-term consequences.

I’m pretty healthy, is there anything for me to worry about?

Smoke contains millions of tiny particles that can make your eyes water, nose run, and make you cough. For most healthy people, these symptoms will go away when the smoke is gone. Decreasing activity will help to minimize possible impacts.

Can I still play sports and be active?

We strongly advise towns and cities not to schedule competitive sports. We strongly advise people to stay indoors and limit their physical activity while smoke continues to be hazardous.

PROTECTING YOURSELF AND YOUR FAMILY

How can I protect myself from fires and smoke?

Limit your exposure to smoke

  • Pay attention to local air quality reports. Listen and watch for news or health warnings about smoke. You can find out the latest progress reports at http://fire.ak.blm.gov/predsvcs/intel.php. Weather and maps can be found at http://www.arh.noaa.gov/.
  • Pay attention to public health messages about taking additional safety measures.
  • DEC Air Quality Advisories at https://myalaska.state.ak.us/dec/air/airtoolsweb/Advisories.aspx
  • DHSS health alert - http://www.epi.alaska.gov/eh/wildfire/default.htm
  • Refer to visibility guides if they are available.
  • If you are advised to stay indoors, keep indoor air as clean as possible.
  • Keep windows and doors closed.
  • 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.
  • Use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to reduce breathing problems. A HEPA filter may reduce the number of irritating fine particles in indoor air.
  • Do not add to indoor pollution. Do not use candles, fireplaces, or gas stoves. Do not vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home. Do not smoke, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.
  • If you have asthma or other lung disease, make sure you follow your doctor's directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma management plan. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.

What if I have a respiratory ailment?

If you are around smoke and you have any type of heart or lung disease, such as congestive heart failure, emphysema, or asthma call your doctor to learn more about precautions you should take.

I am pregnant, should I take additional precautions?

While there have not been studies of the effects of exposure to wildfire smoke on pregnancy outcomes, there is substantial evidence of adverse effects of repeated exposures to cigarette smoke, including both active and passive smoking. Wildfire smoke contains many of the same compounds as cigarette smoke. In addition, recent data suggest that exposures to ambient air pollution in cities may result in low birth weight and possibly other, more serious adverse reproductive effects. Therefore, it would be prudent to consider pregnant women as a potentially susceptible population as well. Pregnant women should limit prolonged or heavy exertion, limit time spent outdoors, and avoid physical exertion. Consult your doctor if you experience shortness of breath, chest pain, rapid heartbeat or other symptoms.

What should I do about closing up my house when it’s so hot inside?

If the smoke is bad, and the house is closed up to prevent smoke entry, but then it is too hot in the house, the individual will need to make a decision about their health and well-being. Since smoke inhalation and overheating are both unhealthy, the best solution would be to vacate the home, especially if people have severe health issues.

Air conditioning units will somewhat filter the air and provide cooling.

It may be possible to use bathroom exhaust fans and a kitchen range hood to exhaust excess heat from inside the home, but that means smoky air will be pulled in from outside through cracks and leaks in the building assembly.

Using circulating fans will move the air inside the house, providing some cooling effect, if the house is closed up. Any sun-facing windows should be shaded to prevent further home overheating.

If the home has a furnace with ductwork, air can be circulated by turning on the furnace fan. The switch is typically located under the thermostat and has three settings: ON, AUTO, FAN. Turn the switch to FAN.

Taking a cool shower or bath will help prevent personal overheating.

Should I drink more water?

Yes, keep your airways moist by drinking lots of water. Drinking plenty of water helps keep respiratory membranes moist.

Will I suffocate in my house?

No. The most common call for evacuation during a wildfire is due to the direct threat of the fire instead of smoke. Leaving the area of thick smoke may be a good protective measure for members of sensitive groups, but it is often difficult to predict the duration, intensity and direction of smoke, making this an unattractive option to many people.

During severe smoke events, clean air shelters can be designated to provide residents with a place to get out of the smoke. These can be located in large commercial buildings, educational facilities, shopping malls or anyplace with effective air conditioning and particle filtration.

Will facemasks or dust masks protect me from the smoke?

In order for a mask to provide protection during a smoke event, it must be able to filter very small particles (around 0.3 to 0.1 microns), and it must fit, providing an airtight seal around the wearer’s face.

Dust masks are not enough. Paper "comfort" or "dust" masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from smoke. It is best to stay indoors and limit your exposure to the smoke. For more information about effective masks, see Respirator Fact Sheet at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/topics/respirators/factsheets/respfact.html which is provided by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Will a wet towel or bandana provide any help?

Breathing through a warm, wet washcloth or towel MAY help relieve dryness. However, they will not protect your lungs from smoke or inhaling particle. Wet towels or bandanas have the same shortcomings as paper dust masks. We do not recommend that they be used.

What about respirator masks, will they help?

Some masks (technically called respirators, but they look more like paper masks) are good enough to filter out 95% of the particulate that is 0.3 microns and larger. Smoke particulate averages about 0.3 microns, so these masks will filter out a significant portion of the smoke if they are properly fit to the wearer’s face. These masks, which may include an exhale valve, do not require cartridge filters. They are marked with one of the following: “R95”, “N95”, or “P95.” Soft masks with higher ratings (R, N or P 99 and R, N, or P 100) are also available and will filter out even more particulates.

There are several drawbacks to recommending widespread mask use in an area affected by wildfire smoke. Most people won’t use the masks correctly and won’t understand the importance of having an airtight seal. For instance, it is impossible to get a good seal on individuals with beards. As a result, the masks will provide little if any protection. Masks are uncomfortable, and they increase resistance to airflow. This makes breathing more difficult and leads to physiological stresses such as increased respiratory rates and heart rates.

Do air-purifying machines help with indoor air?

Choosing to buy an air cleaner is a decision that ideally should be made before a smoke emergency occurs. Most indoor air filtration devices may not effectively reduce the levels of indoor particles in the short-term, especially if you are using it for the first time to protect against current smoke conditions. If you choose to buy an air cleaner, don't wait until there's a fire — make that decision beforehand.

Air cleaners can be effective at reducing indoor particulate levels, provided the specific cleaner is adequately matched to the indoor environment in which it is placed. However, they tend to be expensive.

Some devices, known as ozone generators, personal ozone devices, “energized oxygen” generators, and “pure air” generators, are sold as air cleaners, but they probably do more harm than good. Ozone does not remove particles from the air, so would not be effective during smoke events.

Humidifiers are not technically air cleaners and will not significantly reduce the amount of particulates in the air during a smoke event.

For more information about home air cleaners, go to: www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/residair.html

What should I do if I must drive to work?

Individuals can reduce the amount of smoke in their vehicles by keeping the windows and vents closed. However, in hot weather a car’s interior can heat up very quickly to temperatures that far exceed those outdoors, and heat-related stress can result. Children and pets should never be left unattended in a vehicle with the windows closed. The car’s ventilation system typically removes a small portion of the particles coming in from outside. Most vehicles can re-circulate the inside air, which will help keep the particle levels lower. Drivers should check the owner’s manual and assure that the system is set correctly to minimize entry of outdoor smoke and particles. However, avoid driving whenever possible.

If one has to work with exertion, should rest periods be built in? If so, how often?

We strongly recommend individuals avoid exertion. If exertion is absolutely necessary, there should be as many breaks as possible to allow time for rest and drinking water.

 

WHAT IF I OR MY FAMILY GETS SICK?

I don’t have health insurance, where should I go if I have trouble breathing?

If you live in Fairbanks, the hospital will take you in the emergency room if your symptoms are severe enough. If you live in an impacted village, check with the health clinic to see if they can provide care.

If I have a respiratory problem and can’t reach my doctor, where should I go?

The local hospital’s emergency room or the village clinic will treat people with severe symptoms.

 What can I do to keep my baby safe?

As with everyone, do everything you can to reduce smoke exposure to your child. This includes:

  • Keep windows and doors closed.
  • 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.
  • Use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to reduce breathing problems. A HEPA filter may reduce the number of irritating fine particles in indoor air.
  • Do not add to indoor pollution. Do not use candles, fireplaces, or gas stoves. Do not vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home. Do not smoke, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.
  • Watch your child for symptoms of respiratory problems and call your doctor if symptoms appear.

EVACUATION

What should I do to prepare for an evacuation?

  • Back your car into the garage or park it in an open space facing the direction of escape. Shut doors and roll up windows. Close garage windows and doors, but leave them unlocked. Disconnect automatic garage door openers.
  • Confine pets to one room. Make plans to take your pets in case you must evacuate.
  • Arrange temporary housing at a friend or relative’s home or shelter outside the threatened area.

 If advised to evacuate, what should I do?

  • Wear protective clothing — sturdy shoes, cotton or woolen clothing, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and gloves.
  • Take your Disaster Supplies Kit, which should contain enough food, water and supplies to sustain your family for 5-7 days. Don’t forget any medications or special items such as a first aid kit.
  • Bring your important family documents (birth certificates, wills, insurance policies, etc.)
  • Lock your home.
  • Tell someone when you leave and where you are going.
  • Choose a route away from fire hazards. Watch for changes in the speed and direction of fire and smoke.

If I have time, how can I protect my home before I evacuate?

Inside:

  • Close windows, vents, doors, venetian blinds or non-combustible window coverings and heavy drapes. Remove lightweight curtains.
  • Shut off gas at the meter. Turn off pilot lights.
  • Open fireplace damper. Close fireplace screens.
  • Move flammable furniture into the center of the home away from windows and sliding-glass doors.
  • Turn on a light in each room to increase the visibility of your home in heavy smoke.

 

Outside:

  • Seal attic and ground vents with pre-cut plywood or commercial seals.
  • Turn off propane tanks.
  • Place combustible patio furniture inside.
  • Connect the garden hose to outside taps.
  • Set up the portable gasoline-powered pump.
  • Place lawn sprinklers on the roof and near above-ground fuel tanks. Wet the roof.
  • Wet or remove shrubs within 15 feet of the home.
  • Gather fire tools.

What do I bring if I’m told to evacuate my home?

If asked or instructed to evacuate your home make sure to bring your important family documents (birth certificates, wills, insurance policies, etc) and your family disaster supply kit. Your disaster supply kit should contain enough food, water and supplies to sustain your family for 5-7 days.

What is a good set of emergency supplies I should have with me?

  • A three-day supply of water (one gallon per person per day) and food that won’t spoil.
  • One change of clothing and footwear per person and one blanket or sleeping bag per person.
  • A first aid kit that includes your family’s prescription medications.
  • Emergency tools including a battery-powered radio, flashlight and plenty of extra batteries.
  • An extra set of car keys and a credit card, cash or traveler’s checks.
  • Sanitation supplies.
  • Special items for infant, elderly or disabled family members.
  • An extra pair of eyeglasses.
  • Keep important family documents in a waterproof container.

 

SMOKE IN GENERAL

What is in smoke?

Smoke is made up primarily of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons and other organics, nitrogen oxides and trace minerals. The composition of smoke varies with fuel type: different wood and vegetation are composed of varying amounts of cellulose, lignin, tannins and other polyphenolics, oils, fats, resins, waxes and starches which produce different compounds when burned.

In general, particulate matter is the major pollutant of concern from wildfire smoke. Particulate is a general term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Particulate from smoke tends to be very small (less than one micron in diameter) and, as a result, is more of a health concern than the coarser particles that typically make up road dust. Particulate matter from wood smoke has a size range near the wavelength of visible light (0.4 – 0.7 micrometers). This makes the particles excellent scatterers of light and therefore excellent reducers of visibility. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas, produced as a product of incomplete combustion. It is produced in the largest amounts during the smoldering stages of the fire. Hazardous air pollutants are present in smoke, but in far less concentrations than particulate and carbon monoxide. The most common are acrolein, benezene and formaldehyde.

What air toxics are produced by forest fires?

The three air toxics that are of most concern from wildfires are:

  • Acrolein - An aldehyde with a piercing, choking odor. Even at low levels, acrolein can severely irritate the eyes and upper respiratory tract. Symptoms include stinging and tearing eyes, nausea and vomiting.
  • Formaldehyde - Low level exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Higher levels cause irritation to spread to the lower respiratory tract. Long-term exposure is associated with nasal and nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Benzene - Benzene causes headaches, dizziness, nausea and breathing difficulties, and is a very potent carcinogen. Benzene causes anemia, liver and kidney damage, and cancer.

 

How can it be predicted where the smoke will go?

The behavior of smoke depends on the fire’s size, location, area topography, weather, and more. Smoke fills valleys, which is where people usually live. Smoke levels are hard to predict: a wind can clear out a valley, blow more smoke in, or fan the fires. Smoke concentrations change constantly. National Weather Service satellite photos, weather and wind forecasts, and knowledge of the area can all help in predicting how much smoke will come into an area, but predictions are rarely accurate for more than a few hours. The National Weather Service’s website has a lot of information, including satellite photos that are updated throughout the day. For the western United States, the web address is www.wrh.noaa.gov.

How can I help protect my family and our home from forest fires?

HOME: Contact your local fire department, health department or forestry office for information on fire laws and their recommendation for creating defensible areas around your home. Make sure that fire vehicles can get to your home. Clearly mark all driveway entrances and display your name and address. Plan several escape routes away from your home — by car and by foot. Report hazardous conditions that could cause a wildfire. Teach children about fire safety. Keep matches out of their reach. Post fire emergency telephone numbers.

NEIGHBORHOOD: Talk to your neighbors about wildfire safety. Plan how the neighborhood could work together after a wildfire. Make a list of your neighbors’ skills such as medical or technical. Consider how you could help neighbors who have special needs such as elderly or disabled persons. Make plans to take care of children who may be on their own if parents can’t get home.

How does wildfire smoke compare to other air pollution problems like cigarettes?

People who smoke have already compromised their lung function. Exposure to high levels of particulate can exacerbate their condition, leading to chest pain, trouble breathing and other respiratory symptoms more quickly than in non-smokers. As a way to put smoking in context, in a 10 by 13 foot room with an 8 foot ceiling, it takes only 10 minutes for the side stream smoke of 4 cigarettes to create ambient levels of particulates in the hazardous ranges (644 ug/m3).