July through November is considered “wildfire season” in much of the western U.S. because dry vegetation, low rates of precipitation and warm winds combine to create conditions in which wildfires are most likely to occur.
California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona and several other states often have active wildfires, with winds carrying the smoke from the fires in California as far as Kansas, which is 1,500 miles away. Wildfires are getting bigger and more frequent, so it’s important to be aware of what to do during a wildfire to stay safe.
What to do during a wildfire
Wildfires and the smoke they generate can cause several health and safety risks. If a wildfire in your area is immediately impacting you, there are a few steps you can take to stay safe.
The first thing is to stay informed. The local news or radio will tell you if you need to evacuate. You can also sign up for free emergency alerts from your local government. Stay aware of where the fire is and what you need to do in your area. Evacuate if you are told to do so.
Have an emergency plan ready ahead of time and any necessary supplies on hand. This may mean having three days of supplies, food and water in a go-bag. Also, consider having at least two weeks of supplies, including food, medication and drinking water at home in case you need to stay in the house or stores are closed. Be aware of health and safety concerns when being exposed to wildfire smoke.
Here are our top wildfire safety tips if you are experiencing one in your area.
1. Monitor the air quality index (AQI).
The AQI is a system government officials use to measure harmful particles in the air and communicate the risk of breathing that air to the public. The system has six levels: Good, Moderate, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy and Hazardous. Keeping track of the AQI is a good way to limit exposure to poor-quality air.
2. Use an air filter.
The pollutant most wildfires create is referred to as PM2.5. PM stands for “Particulate Matter,” and 2.5 refers to the size of the particles, which are 2.5 micrometers. For reference, a PM2.5 particle is about 3% of the diameter of a human hair.
Because these particles are microscopic, they can easily enter your home, even if your doors and windows are closed. For that reason, it’s helpful to run an air filter during wildfire season. If you have air conditioning, make sure you use a filter that’s designed to filter out microscopic particulate matter.
3. Don’t exercise outdoors.
If you live in an area affected by wildfire smoke, it’s important to avoid exercising outdoors, especially when the AQI is high. PM2.5 particles are so fine they can deposit deep within the lung tissue and sometimes even spread to the bloodstream. This exposure can cause short- and long-term damage to the heart and lungs.
Until the wildfires resolve, it’s a good idea to get your exercise indoors. If you’re looking for ideas, numerous free exercise videos are available online.
4. Know your risk factors.
When the AQI is between 101-150, it’s considered “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.” Sensitive groups include the elderly, young children and anyone with heart or lung conditions. If you fall into one of these groups, you must stay indoors whenever possible to avoid exposure to unhealthy air.
5. Refill your medications.
Whether you’ve been prescribed medication to take daily or as needed, it’s essential to make sure you have plenty on hand. The pandemic has already altered the hours of many pharmacies and caused a delay in prescription refills, and the wildfires are likely to cause even further disruptions and delays. Plus, if you live close to the fires, there’s a possibility that you might be evacuated.
6. Review your treatment plan.
If you have a chronic lung condition like COPD or asthma, you should have a treatment plan created specifically for you by your healthcare provider. This plan includes what medications to take daily, which medications to take as needed and what symptoms should prompt you to seek medical attention.
Since wildfires can exacerbate respiratory conditions, reviewing and closely following your treatment plan is important. If you don’t have a treatment plan, work with your healthcare provider to create one.
7. Pack an evacuation bag.
Because of high temperatures and strong winds, the course of a wildfire can change suddenly, which means officials may issue evacuation orders at any moment. Since you may need to leave your home in a hurry, it’s wise to pack an evacuation bag in advance.
This bag should include clothes, glasses or contact lenses, keys, medications, water, nonperishable food, face coverings, hand sanitizer, a flashlight, a first aid kit, cash, batteries, charging devices, important documents and a map marked with at least two evacuation routes.
8. Stay up-to-date on news alerts.
Because conditions can change quickly, it’s important to pay attention to news alerts throughout the day. Keep your radio or TV tuned to a news station or sign up to get emergency alerts on your phone so you can receive the most up-to-date information.
9. Heed evacuation and other safety recommendations.
If officials in your area issue evacuation orders or other safety recommendations, you must follow them immediately. Failure to act quickly can put you and your family in danger and pose added risk to rescue crews.
10. Know when to seek medical attention.
While monitoring the wildfires, following AQIs and heeding safety recommendations, it’s important to also pay attention to how your body feels and functions.
Wildfire safety FAQs
Here are some common questions about wildfires and your health.
How toxic is wildfire smoke?
Wildfire smoke is about four times as toxic as air pollution leading to over 339,000 premature deaths annually. Therefore, protecting yourself and your family from poor air quality during wildfire season is essential.
Do forest fires affect air quality?
Yes, forest fires can significantly impact air quality as they release a large amount of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and ozone precursors into the air. The fires can impact climate, radiation and clouds well beyond the area where the wildfire is happening. Poor air quality can significantly impact human health, cause breathing difficulties and respiratory problems.
How do I protect my dog from wildfire smoke?
Pets are susceptible to the health effects of wildfire smoke. If you are in an area with poor air quality, try to keep pets indoors as much as possible and avoid outdoor exercise. When preparing your evacuation bag, be sure to pack food for your pet for at least three days.
Does urgent care treat medical conditions from wildfire smoke?
If you have been exposed to wildfire smoke, please seek prompt medical attention if you develop any concerning symptoms, including shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing, dizziness or any other red flags.
Our urgent care partners are here to help. We’re open seven days a week. Find a center and save your spot online, or simply walk in.