Why Californians should be ready for the next fire

Here are tips on how to keep you and your family safe
Jan 30, 2019 · Muriel Vega
Man wearing an N95 mask due to poor air quality during the California wildfires

Californians are finally at ease following one of the most destructive wildfire seasons on record for our state. The 2018 wildfire season burned the largest amount of acreage recorded, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. 

The 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, near Sacramento, is now 100% contained, but while it burned, the fumes from the fire had Californians up to 200 miles south dealing with respiratory symptoms due to the bad air. Two other fires, Hill and Woolsey, burned nearby as well. The alerts on bad air quality seemed endless. A recent study found that deaths associated with the inhalation of wildfire smoke in the United States could double by 2100. 

“We know from our own research…that smoke has negative impacts on human health," said Jeff Pierce, associate professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and co-author of the study. "With the knowledge that fires have been increasing in parts of the U.S., we wanted to look at how bad this might get."

Here are four ways you can keep yourself and your family safe when California air quality gets bad due to wildfires, or anything else:

  • Check the daily air advisory. Add the South Coast Air Quality Management District and air quality index to your bookmarks as they release daily updates on air quality, health warnings, and fire details. You can also get a snapshot of your area’s air quality with the EPA’s SmokeSense app and get alerted to any nearby fires.
  • Limit outdoor activity. If you see the air quality index start hovering around “unhealthy” on your daily air advisory check, limit outdoor activity, warns the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Keep all windows and doors closed to keep the good air quality inside and use an air filter. If you don’t have an air conditioning unit for the hot summer months, seek alternate shelter within your city. While you’re in your car, make sure to set your air conditioning to recirculate to keep the air quality in the car as high as possible.
  • Shop for a new, clean N95 mask. An unplanned fire in your area can immediately start affecting air quality. Ready.gov recommends building a kit that includes updated asthma medication and N95 respirator masks – not paper masks – to filter out pollution particles. Small children and people with facial hair may need alternate options. Remember wildfires are not only wood smoke; they also contain chemical particles gathered from the homes, cars, and other structures they come in contact with.
  • Stay alert for symptoms. If you’re exposed to bad air during one of the unhealthy air quality warnings, keep an eye out for a burning throat, coughing, teary eyes, irritated sinuses, chest pain, and more. “Smoke is a big deal for children. Our research shows that if they’re exercising in a polluted environment, there’s a higher probability of developing asthma or other respiratory symptoms,” said Kiros Berhane, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, in a statement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the wildfire smoke can also exacerbate respiratory ailments and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. If you’re experiencing trouble breathing, head to your local emergency room or call 911 immediately.

Wildfires across California may be intensifying due to climate change and other factors in the next few decades. Before the wildfire season starts, stock your home with the necessary tools to keep your family safe.

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