wildfire smoke in california
Smoke covers blue sky as wildfire erupts in coastal California mountains. Photo taken across ocean from beach

Raging wildfires have become all too common on the West Coast, leaving millions of people to live with the health hazards they present. This is true even for people who live several miles from the site of a wildfire due to the unique particle matter present in wildfire smoke.

Understanding the Health Hazards of Wildfire Smoke Particles

As wildfires spread, wood and other organic materials catch on fire and create smoke with ultra-fine particles. The microns present in wildfire smoke are four times smaller than a single human hair, making them impossible to see.

The fine particles from wildfire smoke contain gases that are especially harmful to human health when people unknowingly breathe them into their lungs. Once inside the lungs, particles from wildfire smoke remain as a constant source of irritation in the form of coughing, difficulty breathing, or a lung infection.

The smallest particles can make their way into the bloodstream and cause inflammation throughout the body. Children, pregnant women, and adults over age 65 are especially vulnerable to complications from wildfire smoke.

Make Sure Doors and Windows Have a Tight Seal

The first thing homeowners should do when they spot or smell thick smoke is head indoors and close all doors and windows. However, they need to check each door and window to ensure that its seal is tight enough to prevent wildfire smoke from getting into the home.

Since not all gaps are visible, homeowners can use a lighter or candle around all openings to spot anything they might not otherwise see. If the flame from a candle or lighter blows away from the door or window, this signifies that an air gap is present.

Fortunately, air gaps are typically easy to fix with caulking material. If that still does not work, homeowners should contact a local window contracting company to inspect and possible repair windows letting excess air into the home.

Even Celebrities are Affected by Wildfires and Smoke

The infamous Woolsey fire of 2018 destroyed a number of celebrity homes in Southern California. Miley Cyrus, Gerard Butler, Robin Thicke and Shannen Doherty all reportedly lost their homes to the flames.

Stay Indoors and Follow Local Orders

If wildfire smoke is thick enough to see and smell, people should stay inside their homes or place of business if possible. The California Air Resources Board (CARB), which formed as a response to the numerous wildfires in that state, offers the following guidance:

  • Check local announcements for evacuation orders
  • Avoid the outdoors when a known wildfire is burning nearby, and avoid outdoor exercise or strenuous activity completely
  • Remain indoors with the doors and windows closed tightly
  • Avoid any indoor activities that can decrease air quality, such as smoking, cooking without a range hood, vacuuming, or burning candles
  • Consider mopping or wiping hard surfaces with a damp cloth to help prevent tiny irritants from getting into the air
  • Run the air conditioner regardless of outside temperature until smoke from the wildfires clear
  • Install a clean air filter with a MERV (Minimum Efficiency Report Value) of at least 13

If none of these interventions work to create a healthy indoor environment, CARB recommends leaving home and reporting to the nearest clean air center. People in Western states outside of California should check with their local health department for further recommendations.