Smoke from wildfires and prescribed fires is a serious concern as it can cause and exasperate health conditions for those of us that endure it. However by living in the fire adapted ecosystems of northern New Mexico we must accept that wildfire and smoke is inevitable.
Interactive Smoke Map from Airnow
by the Environmental Protection Agency
This map shows the Air Quality Index (AQI) which is a monitor of the quality of the air and it's potential impacts on your health, as well as most active wildfires and some smoke plumes from wildfires. For more information click on the side bar in the map or visit the map on it's home page.
Smoke is a complicated mixture of materials in the air including particulates of various sizes and gases that are released as materials burn. The emissions vary depending on what material is burning and whether it is smoldering or in flames. Smoke generally consists of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, water vapor, hydrocarbons, other organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides, trace minerals and particulate matter.
Particulate matter consists of solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air. Particles with diameters less than 10 microns are upper respiratory tract and eye irritants.
Smaller particles (2.5 PM) are the greatest health concern – they can be inhaled deep into the lungs, and can affect respiratory and heart health. (HEPA filters remove particles down to .3 PM)
Carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas produced by incomplete combustion, is a particular health concern and levels are highest during the smoldering stages of a fire.
Smoke causes a variety of health problems including:
Eye, nose, and throat irritation (burning eyes and runny nose).
Wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and headaches.
Aggravation of existing lung, heart and circulatory conditions, including asthma and angina.
For more information check out this factsheet that reviews current research on smoke effects on public health. Click here.
What can you do to reduce the impacts of smoke?
Smoke is a known health hazard and inhaling it is not good for anyone, and it especially affects sensitive groups such as people under the age of 18 and over the age of 65, pregnant women and people who are predisposed to respiratory ailments.
Limiting your exposure
Reducing the impacts of smoke is accomplished by limiting your exposure to smoke as much as possible.
For people in a safe location, away from the fire, reducing physical activity is an effective strategy to lower the dose of inhaled air pollutants and reduce health risks during a smoke event. During exercise, people can increase their air intake as much as 10 to 20 times over their resting level. Increased breathing rates bring more pollution deep into the lungs.
Staying inside in a safe place with the doors and windows closed can usually reduce exposure to air pollution by at least a third or more.
Reduce other sources of indoor air pollution: smoking cigarettes, using gas, propane and wood-burning stoves and furnaces, spraying aerosol products, frying or broiling meat, burning candles and incense, and vacuuming can all increase particle levels in a home and should be avoided when wildfire smoke is present.
Find a designated clean air shelter where you can go for respite from smoky conditions. This is particularly important for people without air conditioning on hot smoky days, when staying indoors with windows closed can be hazardous. Places to consider going include public libraries, hospitals, movie theaters, and other public buildings with good HVAC systems.
Individuals who are particularly sensitive to smoke should consider temporarily evacuating an area with unhealthy levels of air pollution until air quality conditions improve.
Use filters in your HVAC system or smaller portable air cleaners to provide clean air inside your home. Read more about these systems below.
Filtering your air
One of the best ways to reduce the impact of smoke is by reducing the amount of smoke that enters your building and filtering harmful particles from the air.
Tightly closed buildings reduce exposure to outdoor air pollution, smoke enters and leaves buildings in three primary ways:
Mechanical ventilation systems, which actively draw in outdoor air through intake vents and distribute it throughout the building.
Natural ventilation (opening of doors or windows).
Infiltration, the passive entry of unfiltered outdoor air through small cracks and gaps in the building shell.
If you have a central air conditioning system in your home, set it to re-circulate or close outdoor air intakes to avoid drawing in smoky outdoor air. Upgrading the filter efficiency of the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system and changing filters frequently during smoke events greatly improves indoor air quality.
Smaller portable air cleaners are a great way to provide clean air in the areas where you spend most of your time. Essentially these are filters with an attached fan that draws air through the filter and cleans it. These cleaners can help reduce indoor particle levels, provided the specific air cleaner is properly matched to the size of the indoor environment in which it is placed, and doors and windows are kept shut. They should be placed in the bedrooms or living rooms to provide the most effectiveness.
When air quality improves, such as during a wind shift or after a rain, make sure to use natural ventilating to flush out the air in your building.
Selecting a Filter - For either portable filters or HVAC filters make sure to select a filter that is true HEPA or has a MERV rating of 13 or higher. These ratings refer to the size of particles that the filter will remove from the air and in this case they are certified to remove particles down to .3 microns in size. This is the minimum needed to remove the small harmful particles in smoke.
When selecting a portable filter, the other rating to pay attention to is CADR or Clean Air Delivery Rate. This refers to the volume of air that passes trough the unit. A CADR of 200 means the unit provides 200 cubic feet of clean air per minute, and often this number is equated to the room size that it will effectively purify the air in. In a 300 sq foot room a filter with a rating of 200 CADR will cycle the air through the filter 4-5 times per hour. While any filter will provide clean air those with lower CADRs will simply work more slowly.
Lastly, make sure to avoid filters that claim to produce ozone to destroy pathogens, as ozone is a respiratory irritant.
More information about filters and guides to selecting one can be found in the Resources section below.
Face Masks - Face masks can be an effective way to reduce your exposure to smoke when they are fit correctly and are the proper rating. Make sure the mask you use is rated at least N95 or N100 and that you take care to fit it properly. These masks will filter out the small particles that are the most hazardous to your health. They are commonly available at hardware stores and can be purchased online. Paper masks only filter out large particles and will not provide the filtration needed to protect you from smoke. More information about selecting and fitting masks can be found in the Resources section below.
Filter and Air Cleaner Information:
What to Know Before Buying an Air Purifier to Clear Wildfire Smoke, by Kristin Wong, The New York Times
The Best Air Purifier: Reviews - by the Wirecutter
Air Cleaning Devices for the Home FAQ - California Environmental Protection Agency
Build a do-it-yourself air purifier for about $25 - University of Michigan
Indoor Air Filtration factsheet - Airnow
Respiratory Protection Factsheet - Airnow
General Smoke Information:
New Mexico Fire Info, Smoke Management - New Mexico Fire Information - an interagency effort by federal and state agencies in New Mexico
Air Now, Interactive Map of Smoke Monitors & Fire Current Conditions - Environmental Protection Agency
Protect Your Health on Smoky Days - from New Mexico Environmental Public Health
Wildfire Smoke Frequently Asked Questions - Environmental Protection Agency
New Mexico’s Smoke Management Program - New Mexico Environment Department’s Air Quality Bureau
NOAA Smoke Forecast Tool - Maps of surface and vertical smoke can be found under “Additional Air Quality Forecast Guidance.”
General Fire Preparedness Information
Evacuation and Preparedness Tips - The Forest Stewards Guild
NOAA's Fire Weather Outlook - This tool maps fire watches and warnings.
GEOMAC Wildland Fire Support - Access maps of current fire locations using this tool from the Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination Group (GEOMAC).
MODIS Active Fire Mapping - This site from the USDA Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC) maps active fires.