Coping with COVID-19 plus wildfire smoke

November 13, 2018. California. The smoke choked sky changes the daylight to an indescribable hue. Photo by Daniel Cima/American Red Cross

By Gordon Williams

When it comes to wildfires and wildfire smoke, so far so good. Wildfire activity in Washington state and neighboring British Columbia has been moderate so far this year — many fires but none major. There is little evidence of the smoke that blanketed the region in years past.

Still, as a sign of how things could quickly get worse, firefighters had to battle two significant fires in mid-July: the Sunset fire near Wenatchee and the Road 11 fire in Douglas County. Warmer, drier mid-summer weather could help trigger more fires — and more smoke. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, even a little wildfire smoke could multiply the hazards posed by the virus.

Best advice for the summer is to keep watch on where fires are burning near you, and to pay close attention to the guidance on how to stay healthy through the twin perils of wildfire smoke and COVID-19. 

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) sums up the situation this way: “The wildfire season is going to be unique as we continue to respond to COVID-19. Breathing in wildfire smoke may worsen symptoms for those with COVID-19, and many of those vulnerable to wildfire smoke are also vulnerable to COVID-19.”

The DOH warns that “inhaling smoke is not good for anyone, even healthy people.” For some, though, smoke could exacerbate existing health conditions. Among the most vulnerable are:

  • People with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • People with heart conditions such as congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease and angina.
  • Infants and children under 18 because their lungs and airways are still developing,
  • Older adults because they are more likely to have unrecognized heart or lung diseases.
  • Pregnant women, with both mother and fetus at increased risk.

How do you assess the risk of wildfires and wildfire smoke in your locale? There are lots of useful websites that keep track of wildfires in Washington state.

Most comprehensive of all comes from the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (NWCC) at nwccinfo.blogspot.com. The NWCC links all the agencies –federal, state and local — that monitor wildfire conditions in the Pacific Northwest.

You will see which locales are under red flag warnings — meaning the fire risk is high. (Also, look for red flag warnings in your local weather forecast.) The NWCC site will indicate where lightning has struck in the past 24 hours — lightning being a frequent trigger of wildfires. There is an update on all current fires plus a daily morning brief that sums up the regional fire situation in a few words.

To see the regional fire risk at a glance, do an Internet search for the Pacific Northwest 7-Day Significant Fire Potential, from the NWCC. In a single page, it divides Washington and Oregon into 12 zones and uses color-coding to show the fire risk in each zone.

Finally, you will find the Washington Smoke Information blog at wasmoke.blogspot.com. It shows the air quality for dozens of Washington locations, with a generalized discussion of the current wildfire smoke situation, A map shows the local clean air agency for each region of the state. One of these will be the agency that measures and reports on air quality for your neighborhood.

For the most complete information on coping with wildfire smoke, go to the DOH website at www.doh.wa.gov. Search for wildfire smoke. You’ll find information on the problems smoke can cause, who is most at risk from wildfire smoke, and lots of advice on how to protect yourself and your family from wildfire smoke.

Symptoms that you are being affected by wildfire smoke include burning eyes and a runny nose, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and headache. The DOH warns that smoke can worsen symptoms of lung, heart and circulatory conditions and can trigger asthma and angina.

As noted elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic could make a bad situation much, much worse.

What should you do if the air around your home turns smoky?

  • Avoid physical activity outdoors when the air turns smoky. Stay indoors and keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner if you have one. Set it to recirculate and close the fresh air intake. 
  • Don’t add to indoor pollution by using food boilers, candles, incense, fireplaces or gas stoves. Don’t vacuum unless the machine has a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Vacuuming stirs up particles already in the air. Smoking indoors, of course, will simply put more pollution into the air.
  • Masks are only partly effective in protecting you from wildfire smoke, An N95 respirator mask will filter out fine particulates, but won’t keep out hazardous gases such as carbon monoxide. Masks aren’t approved for infants or small children, and may not fit correctly if you have a beard. 

If smoke has you feeling ill, consider leaving the area for someplace safe. Finally, consult your health care provider if you are in the high-risk category for COVID-19 and the air turns smoky. 

Overall, the Red Cross provides safety and preparedness tips to guide you through all phases of wildfire season: before, during and when to go home. To learn more, visit our website at RedCross.org.

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