With dry seasons extended and temperatures on the rise, wildfire seasons have become longer and more dangerous than ever.
Fires in the American West this summer, and other parts of the world, have reached air quality levels of unprecedented hazard, breaking records as the worst in the world and forcing entire communities to evacuate. Below is a compilation of wildfire resources to keep you informed of evacuation and safety protocols.
Air Quality is measured through the Air Quality Index (AQI), and accounts for five major air pollutants: ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. In the U.S., these measurements range from 0 to 500, least to most harmful. Measurements below 100 are not considered detrimental to one’s health, but measurements above 100 may be harmful to sensitive groups (children, pregnant women, and the elderly, as well as those who smoke or have conditions such as asthma or heart disease). Measurements above 300 are considered hazardous to everyone.
Many cities along the West Coast are currently experiencing unhealthy — and in many cases, hazardous — air conditions. This week, areas in Western Oregon reached air quality levels so hazardous that they surpassed the AQI scale. As a result, the EPA declared “emergency conditions” for anyone exposed to such air for 24 hours or more.
The danger with poor air quality comes with inhaling harmful particulate matter and toxic carcinogens created by wildfire smoke. Four smoke (PM2.5) particles can fit into a single particle of dust. They are so small that the body can’t naturally filter them out, so they easily reach the lungs and enter the bloodstream.
Some common symptoms of this smoke exposure include: irritated eyes, nose, and/or throat, a cough, headaches, sleeplessness, and slight shortness of breath. This exposure is especially harmful to those with pre-existing conditions, and can lead to increased chances of asthma or heart attacks. Contact your doctor or call 911 if you have breathing trouble or chest pain.
While levels above 300 AQI are considered hazardous for anyone exposed, it is not known how exposure to recent off-the-charts hazardous air will affect human health. Therefore, it is necessary to be vigilant about limiting exposure.
When it is smoky outside you should reduce time spent outdoors, and avoid outdoor activities that require exertion and heavy breathing. Opt for light exercise indoors and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
Keep doors and windows closed. If you have an HVAC system, set your air conditioning to “recirculate” mode to filter the air in your home. If you have central ducted air conditioning, make sure the system setting is switched to “on,” rather than “auto,” to ensure air is being filtered constantly rather than intermittently.
Reduce other sources of indoor smoke. Avoid burning cigarettes, candles or gas, propane, and wood burning stoves and furnaces. Also avoid vacuuming to limit dust in the air — use a damp mop or cloth to clear away dust particles instead.
Cloth masks and face coverings provide protection from ash, but they will not protect against inhaling minute particulate matter from smoke. N-95 masks may provide protection if worn and fitted properly. However, they are in short supply since they are the verified protection for essential workers to combat Covid-19.
The most effective way to protect yourself from harmful wildfire conditions is to remain indoors and limit your time outdoors as much as possible. Even if the sky looks clear, air quality can be deceptive, because it accounts for particles too small to see. You can monitor your air quality with airnow.gov or through the Forest Service.
If you must drive in your car, keep headlights on at all times — not only to see, but to be seen. Turn on your Air Recirculation button to close vents and keep smoky air out of the car.
Sign up for Public Alerts or emergency alerts specific to your county. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio will also provide emergency alerts, but will not reach you as quickly or reliably as a more localized alert system.
Check your county and state websites. There, you can find specific information on evacuation points, emergency housing, prescription medication discounts, mental health resources, DMV replacement documents, unemployment, etc.
Familiarize yourself with your community’s evacuation routes. Be aware of several ways to leave the area in the event that some roadways are closed due to fire damage. See your Department of Transportation for information on road conditions and closures.
Stay up to date on social media. Many people will post important information and resources, and community members will circulate information specific to your area that you might not find elsewhere.
Charge electronics such as smartphones, laptops, and flashlights. Turn volume up on phones in order to hear emergency alerts right away.
Compile an emergency kit (if you are not otherwise ordered to evacuate immediately). This should include important documents (birth certificates, passports), irreplaceable items (family photographs, hard drives, etc), and enough resources to last you and your family members two weeks.
For insurance purposes, videotape every corner of your home and talk through every item you own, down to the smallest details (i.e. how many dishes in your cupboard or pairs of jeans in your dresser). Having your house documented will make insurance claims easier if anything is damaged during the fire or stolen while you are away.
Be prepared in the event that your electricity is turned off. Many energy companies will shut off electricity in areas in imminent fire danger. Make sure you are able to open garage doors manually so your vehicle will not be stuck inside the house, and have emergency cash on hand in case ATMs don’t work.
If your area is not ordered to evacuate, stay put and continue to monitor conditions and updates closely. This leaves room on roadways for residents and emergency responders in urgent evacuation zones. You can protect yourself and first responders by evacuating only when you are advised to.
Check on your friends, family, and neighbors, to make sure they are prepared as well.
Continue to follow COVID-19 recommendations. While cloth masks do not prevent inhaling harmful smoke particles, they do still slow the spread of Covid-19 and should still be worn in public places at all times.
Make sure all of your pets or livestock are included in your evacuation plan, and have a pet evacuation kit prepared for them as well. Pets are equally susceptible to the harmful effects of wildfire smoke, particularly older animals, or those with preexisting conditions. To protect pets, limit their time outside (shorter bathroom breaks and walks) and keep them in a well-ventilated room. They should have access to plenty of fresh water and their favorite toys, blankets, and treats, so as to limit potential anxiety in a more stressful environment.
To protect your large animals in wildfires, limit strenuous work and give them 4 to 6 weeks to recover fully from smoky conditions before resuming strenuous activity. If smoke continues to worsen, stay up-to-date on locations that will accept livestock if you need to evacuate. Contact your local fairgrounds, stockyards, race tracks, and equestrian centers about temporary shelter. Train all livestock to load into trailers in the event that relocation becomes necessary.
If evacuating large animals cannot be accomplished in a safe and timely way, open gates, cut fences, or herd livestock into areas of lower fire risk. Leave enough food and water for 48 to 72 hours (do not rely on automatic watering systems). Remove all halters or harnesses from livestock to prevent anything extraneous from burning into their skin or getting caught while they roam freely. If your animals do not have permanent identification (ear tags, tattoos, electronic microchips, brands, etc.), write your phone number in permanent marker on your their hooves so that anyone who finds them can contact you.
Many wild animals are displaced by the fires, and may start wandering into neighborhoods because they are scared or thirsty. If you have spare buckets or large containers, you can fill them with fresh water and place them outside of your home.
How to Help
- Volunteer your time at food banks and emergency shelters.
- Donate clothing and household items to organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army
- Host people in need of emergency housing through Air BnB.
- Support the Go Fund Me Wildfire Relief Fund.
- Sign up for the Volunteers for the Emergency Management of Animals Network to help animals displaced by fires.
- Contribute to reforestation efforts through One Tree Planted ($1 plants one tree).
Additional Wildfire Resources:
For state-specific resources, visit the state wildfire resource pages for California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Colorado. You can also read further into how to stay safe when a wildfire threatens and how to find emergency shelters.