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What to do when wildfire smoke clouds our air

The Lake Almanor Watershed Group prepared a list of ways to protect yourself when dense smoke from wildfires envelops town and makes breathing more difficult.

Who’s at risk? The smoke from wildfires is a mixture of particles and gases, which are very toxic and harmful to human health for everyone.

This is especially true for young children, pregnant mothers and the elderly. Of course, this is a problem from smoke from any burning plant material, including firewood.

When you can see or smell smoke, there is probably too much in the air to be safe to breathe. For an individual with any of the following conditions: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease, breathing wildfire smoke is very high risk.

However, even if you do not have any of these health conditions, it is now apparent that extended breathing of wildfire smoke can compromise the health of an otherwise healthy population.

What can we do? Avoid or reduce the amount of air contaminated by the smoke. A recent review article in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society evaluates a number of strategies that can be used to do this.

Leaving the area completely for a few days until the smoke clears is the most obvious choice. This is, however, the least easy or realistic option. It can also be highly stressful.Do not perform heavy or prolonged outdoor physical activity. This will lower your outdoor exposure, especially the extra heavy exposure resulting from the 10- to 20-fold increase in the breathing rate during exercise.

Just stay indoors. This should decrease exposure, but how well this reduces pollution of indoor air depends on a number of factors, including:

– Keeping the doors and windows closed. But it depends on how tight the windows and doors are sealed and whether there are other ventilation leaks.

– Filtering indoor air with portable HEPA air filters, central air filters or air conditioners in recirculation mode, assuming the filters are not too old and high quality.

– Avoiding the use of swamp coolers or whole house fans.

– Wear a filter facemask. They can be effective against the toxic particles — but not the toxic gases. To ensure that these masks are effective, NIOSH-approved N95 or P100 filtering face piece respirators should be used.

The facemask must be carefully fitted to the face for a tight seal. Fitting must account for facial hair, scars and other facial irregularities.

Tight fitting respirators may compromise heavy breathing and add stress to the individual, especially in hot humid areas; no respirators are approved for children.

Given that we in Plumas County live in a wildfire-prone area, we as individuals may benefit from increased awareness of the air quality conditions and by making plans for controlling wildfire smoke exposure in our homes.

This could include having air filtration systems on hand and making improvements to the barriers that seal our home’s indoor air from outside contaminants.

Being aware of the quality of our air when we are inundated by wildfire smoke is critical to our ability to decide how to respond and conduct our lives in a healthy fashion.

Two air quality resources are available for us in Plumas County: the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District. To get location-specific reports, select the town name and then “PM2.5”on this page: myairdistrict.com.

The other is maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (AirNow). Location specific information is available at airnow.gov.

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