How to Prepare for Fire Season
2021 has been packed with heatwaves worldwide. Under normal circumstances, that’s a cue for people near fire zones to gear up, but this year’s smoke must have heard they lifted travel bans because it is flying all over the place. No matter where you live, you should know what to expect this fire season.
As usual, stay hydrated, wear sunscreen and find shade, but also maybe buy a gas mask and some oxygen tanks because this year looks like it’ll be epic. Historic droughts have already dried out much of California, and fires across the west coast are up by 25 percent. That means a lot of potential smoke, which means breathing problems.
What’s in Forest Fires?
As the beautiful know, it’s frustrating to sit at a campfire and have smoke blow in your face. Flattering, yes, but so hard to breathe! Why?
Smoke comprises a bunch of different chemical compounds including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, hydrocarbons and more — stuff your lungs don’t like. While your body can defend itself against particles bigger than 2.5 micrometers (about 50x smaller than a grain of sand), smaller particles pose a threat.
How Small Particles Do Damage
Your lungs are like trees. The big branches channel more air while the little branches move oxygen into your bloodstream. When small particles get deep inside your lungs, they irritate those small branches, leading to inflammation and trouble breathing. That’s why fires where small particles are detected result in a health warning.
Some fires are even worse. Building fires, for example, can contain lead and cause brain damage. Long-term exposure to fire smoke causes chronic breathing problems and damage to the circulatory system. It can even raise your risk of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19. So how does one be careful and avoid all these dangers?
How to Stay Healthy
There’s nothing like leaving the office to a billowing plume of smoke in the distance. As ash covers the cars in the parking lot, you take comfort knowing the smoke is far away. It can’t hurt you. Or can it?
As it turns out, smoke that travels further or stays in the air longer gets more toxic due to sunlight breakdown and mixing with other airborne chemicals. If you have a bomb shelter or other underground bunker, now would be a good time to redecorate. Be careful though, because vacuuming can also stir up pollutants, as will burning candles and smoking.
Ideally, just stay indoors when the smoke is heavy. Going outside during an air quality warning is like sticking your mouth on an exhaust pipe — it’s not good for you. Keep the AC running so the filter cleans up the air in your home. HEPA air filters are also a wise investment, as they capture smaller air particles that can irritate your lungs.
While most of us have cloth face coverings, only a properly fitted N95 mask will keep nasty particles out of your airways. Sorry, but that thing Aunt Shirley made for you won’t cut it.
At the next family reunion, if your crazy uncle says there haven't been more fires over the last 30 years, he’s not wrong. What has changed is that those fires now do 4x more damage. These fires are vicious, and until we tackle rising global temps, they’ll keep getting worse.
On your end, just be careful. Put out your cigarettes, don’t idle your car over dry brush, and be extra cautious with your candles. Finally, stay informed about the air quality in your area so you don’t go huffing any exhaust pipes.