Climate Adaptation: Staying Healthy Indoors During Wildfire Season

This month, the wildfire seasons that have choked western cities for the past five years arrived on the eastern seaboard, where cities, including New York and Philadelphia, were engulfed by smoke from Canadian wildfires. It’s time to adapt our lives to the consequences of climate change, making changes to protect our health indoors and outdoors.

Wildfire seasons have become longer, more frequent, and more devastating, posing severe health risks from exposure to wildfire smoke. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wildfire smoke is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning wood and organic materials. Even when wildfires are far from your home, exposure to smoke poses health risks ranging from burning eyes and runny nose to more severe conditions such as bronchitis.

Surprisingly, when the air outside becomes heavily polluted, closing the doors and staying inside offers little protection from wildfire smoke. The EPA has warned that “the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities.” Additional steps to seal your home, clean indoor air, and establish new habits to prevent bringing toxins in with foot traffic can make it a safer haven during fire season.

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Be Informed, Be Prepared

Staying informed about local air quality levels is essential to managing your health during wildfire season. Many online platforms, applications, and local news channels provide real-time updates on Air Quality Index (AQI) levels, which indicate how clean or densely polluted your local air is, often in real-time

The EPA operates a website and app called AirNow that provides comprehensive air quality data nationwide. AirNow allows you to check the AQI in your area using your ZIP code. Several free and paid smartphone applications such as Weather.com (Android/iPhone), BreezoMeter (Android), or Plume Labs’ Air Report (Android/iPhone) offers real-time AQI tracking and pollen forecasts that can be useful when there’s no smoke.

Local news outlets and weather forecast channels are reliable sources of AQI updates. By monitoring these resources, you can plan your activities accordingly and take necessary precautions when the air quality is poor.

If you must spend time outside when the air quality index is high, protect yourself with a high-quality mask like an N95 respirator. Credit: Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Indoor Measures Against Smoke

Indoor air quality can significantly deteriorate during wildfires due to the infiltration of outdoor air through open windows and doors, ventilation devices, and small cracks and joints around windows and doors. Taking measures to reduce smoke penetration into your home is essential, starting by closing all the windows and doors when smoke appears.

Don’t contribute to indoor pollution. Avoid activities that create more fine particles, such as smoking cigarettes, using gas or wood-burning stoves, spraying aerosol products, frying or broiling food, burning candles or incense, and vacuuming unless you use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Creating a clean room that is well insulated from the smoke outdoors is another valuable measure. This room should have as few windows and doors as possible and be equipped with a portable air cleaner. It’s a good idea to stock the room with toys, books, and media for kids, older adults, or those with respiratory conditions to entertain them during the smoke event.

To reduce the smoke, particulates, and toxins that enter your home:

  1. Keep windows and doors closed and use fans and air conditioning to stay cool. If you have an HVAC system with a fresh air intake, set it to recirculate mode or close the outdoor intake damper.
  2. Avoid evaporative coolers, known as “swamp coolers,” which can bring more smoke inside the house. However, if you face a heat emergency – another consequence of climate change – you may choose to keep your body cool at the cost of additional smoke exposure.
  3. If you have or are considering buying a portable air conditioner, ensure the seal between the window vent kit and the window is tight to prevent smokey air from creeping in.

Consider using a portable air cleaner or installing a high-efficiency filter in your HVAC system (look for filters with a MERV rating of 13 or higher) to remove fine particles from air circulating inside your home, running it as often as possible on the highest fan speed. If your HVAC system has a high-efficiency filter installed, run the fan as much as possible during smoke events.

child and pet in clean room with air purifier
A clean room with an air cleaner and minimal windows and doors can help keep children and those with respiratory conditions safer from smoky air.

Keeping Indoor Filters Clean

Proper cleaning and maintenance of air filters in portable air cleaners and HVAC systems is crucial to ensure optimal performance during wildfire seasons. Refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines for specific instructions on cleaning and maintenance schedules.

Generally, portable air cleaner filters must be replaced every 6 to 12 months or when they appear visibly dirty. Some air cleaners have washable filters, which should be cleaned with warm water and a mild detergent, then thoroughly dried before reinstallation.

Replace HVAC system filters every one to three months, though this may need to be more frequent during wildfire season when filters work harder to clean the air. Avoid touching the filter material directly to prevent damage, and ensure the filter fits correctly in its housing, with no gaps or bypass areas.

Regular maintenance improves air quality and increases the lifespan and efficiency of your air filtration systems.

Protecting Your Home From Smoke Infiltration

To further reduce the infiltration of smoke into your home, consider air-sealing your home. Caulking and weather stripping are simple and effective air-sealing techniques that prevent smoke from entering your home through cracks and openings around door and window frames. The Department of Energy recommends sealing more than a dozen common sources of polluted outdoor air, including in the attic, around dropped ceilings, recessed lighting fixtures, ducts, and fireplaces.

Air sealing house illustration
Source: U.S. Department of Energy

Some smoke particles and toxins are bound to get inside the house. High-efficiency HVAC filters can also help remove more pollutants from the air circulating through your home. These filters can remove more wildfire smoke from the air than filters with a lower rating.

Outdoor Measures Against Smoke

When outdoor air quality is poor due to smoke, limit outdoor activities. Avoid strenuous activity to reduce how much smoke you inhale. If it’s necessary to be outdoors for an extended time, consider wearing a high-quality mask like an N95 respirator, the most protective option against fine particulate matter in smoke. The same masks you stockpiled during the COVID pandemic will serve you during fire season.

While we think of smoke as drifting into the house on air currents, our clothing and shoes are a common source of indoor contamination. Take a simple but effective measure by placing a doormat outside each entrance to your home to limit the amount of ash that gets inside. Ask visitors and your family to stomp their feet thoroughly before entering. Clean the mats regularly to remove any lingering particles. Consider removing your shoes when you enter the house to reduce the ash particulates brought inside.

If you have a mudroom or enclosed porch, consider sealing it as a low-tech airlock where people can change and quickly vacuum themselves before entering the house.

Wildfires’ increasing frequency and severity are more than a cause for concern; they point to a challenging future if we do not reduce CO2 emissions to end global warming. But there are effective ways to protect yourself and your family from the health risks of wildfire smoke. By taking these preventive measures, you can maintain a healthier indoor environment and reduce the potential harm caused by smoke exposure.

Feature image by Anthony Quintano from Mount Laurel, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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