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Are You Smoke Ready? Helpful Information to Get Ready & Reduce Your Smoke Exposure

Posted on June 13, 2022 at 6:00 am

Smoke in sky from fires in a wooded mountainous region

By Lisa Woodard, guest blogger

Smoke Ready Week

With the arrival of summer comes the concern about wildfires and the potential for another summer with smoke-filled days.

The threat of wildfires is real, and work is underway by many federal, state, and local agencies to reduce this threat. We also know that the threat of significant smoke is real.

In seven of the last 10 summers, there were 59 days when our local air quality failed to meet health-based standards due to wildfire smoke. Those days meant deciding when and where to move outdoor activities indoors and whether to postpone or cancel summer camps, swimming lessons, and so many other activities we enjoy during summer.

These major inconveniences pale in comparison to the health consequences of breathing smoke, especially for our most vulnerable residents and visitors.

AQI chart showing safe and unhealthy air quality levels
AQI chart showing safe and unhealthy air quality levels. source: Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency

At Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, we monitor air pollutants and report levels using the Air Quality Index (AQI). Concentrations of pollutants are converted to the AQI. The AQI ranges start at 0–50 (good air quality/green) all the way to 301–500 (hazardous air quality/maroon). We provide a current AQI on our website that updates hourly, as well as two-day AQI forecasts so that people can make choices to protect their health.

When smoke is increasing and expected to reach unhealthy levels, our agency and the Spokane Regional Health District work together to inform the public on how they can protect themselves and others from smoke exposure.

The time to prepare and act is now, before the smoke arrives.

Together with other agencies, we promote the annual Smoke Ready Week. Each day from June 13–17, we and our partners highlight actions that you can take now, in your own home or business, to prepare and why it is important to do so. Through our websites (SRHD, SRCAA), social media, articles like this, community events, and with the help of our local news media, we will provide this vital information throughout the summer.

What Is in Smoke? Why Should I Be Concerned?

Smoke from wildfires contains gases and fine particles. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles—or PM2.5, which is particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller (see the image below to get an idea of how small 2.5 micrometers is). The size of particles is linked to their potential for causing health problems. Fine particles are considered more harmful because they travel deeper into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.

The national, health-based standard for PM2.5 is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over 24-hours, from midnight to midnight. This standard is equivalent to 100 on the AQI scale. An AQI over 100 means the health standard is not being met, which has happened on 59 days during seven of the last 10 summers.

Size comparisons for PM particles
Size comparisons for PM particles. source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

How Smoke Harms

Even if you are in good health, it is a good idea to avoid breathing smoke. When inhaled, particles bypass our bodies’ normal defenses, traveling deep into the lungs and even entering the bloodstream.

Smoke & Health: Who is vulnerable?

Breathing wildfire smoke can worsen many health problems and cause minor to serious symptoms like headaches, stinging eyes, running nose, coughing, and trouble breathing. Fine particles can worsen chronic heart and lung diseases and have been linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions.

There are groups considered “most sensitive” to air pollution. These include infants and children, pregnant women, adults 65 and older, and people with heart and lung disease.

Those in the smoke sensitive groups should discuss having a plan in place with their healthcare team before the smoke arrives.

Preparing for Smoke

The first thing to do to prepare for smoke is to know where to access the current air quality and air quality forecasts.

During a wildfire smoke “event,” air quality can change rapidly, so check out the various online resources listed below and bookmark (save) your favorites.

Online AQI and smoke resources

  • SpokaneCleanAir.org provides data for Spokane County. We provide a snapshot on the homepage with a link to the reporting page with maps and data for each of our air quality monitoring locations.
  • AirNow.gov is a great website for local and national air quality data. From there you can learn about smart phone apps or subscribe to receive texts and/or email alerts that you can personalize for the reports you want. For example, you may want a text alert when the AQI reaches the moderate range, or you may only want an alert when it reaches the unhealthy range. The site has smoke and fire maps and data as well.
  • The Washington State Smoke Blog is a great resource for statewide air quality and wildfire activity information.

Your indoor air quality

  • Improve your indoor filtration – Your home’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system is the best way to reduce fine particles from wildfire smoke throughout your home. Increase the filtration in your home HVAC system to a MERV 13 filter with the deepest pleat your system can accommodate to reduce fine particles. Close the air intake to keep wildfire smoke out. Make sure to consult your HVAC manual or consult with an HVAC professional before making improvements. Change the filter when dirty or indicated by manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Create a cleaner-air room – You can use a portable HEPA air cleaner in your home to create a clean-air room. Select one that is rated for the size of room where you plan to use it. The rating is based on the square footage of the room and the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR). Consider the noise rating as well, as some can be quite loud. Choosing one rated for a larger sized room and then running it at a lower setting can reduce the noise.
  • Make a DYI box fan filter – Select a standard box fan and a filter with a MERV 13 rating of the same dimensions. Place the constructed DIY box fan filter in a room, ideally a small room where you spend time, with the windows and doors closed. Keep it away from a window or wall so that the front or back are not blocked. Do not run unattended and monitor for overheating to reduce the risk of fire. Change the filter when dirty. Here is a one-minute video demonstration from the Washington Department of Ecology (YouTube) that shows you how to easily make your own.
  • Don’t forget about air quality inside your vehicle – Inspect and replace the filters in your vehicles as needed.

When Smoke Is Here

Additional strategies to minimize smoke exposure

The best way to protect your health is to reduce your exposure to smoke by limiting or avoiding time spent outdoors. It’s critical to keep your indoor air as clean as possible. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Keep your windows and doors closed.
  • If you have an air conditioning unit at home or in your car, switch off the “fresh air intake” when it is smoky outside. Use the “recirculate feature” instead.
  • If you do not have an air conditioner and it is smoky and hot outside, seek shelter at family member’s or friend’s home.
  • Avoid adding fine particles to indoor air by postponing vacuuming or dusting, not burning candles or incense, and not frying foods.

There are many resources and detailed fact sheets available on a host of wildfire smoke-related topics developed by state and federal agencies. You can find many of these resources on the Spokane Clean Air website.

While we can’t predict how bad the smoke may be this summer, each of us can work on being prepared!

Lisa Woodard from Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency talking to a student about air quality

Lisa Woodard is the Communications & Outreach Manager for Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency and a WSU alum. A favorite aspect of her work is inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards. Her lifelong passion for protecting our environment was lit in elementary school after attending the U.S. Forest Service’s production of “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute,” featuring Woodsy the Owl. She also loves owls.

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