With millions of East Coast residents now dealing with unhealthy air from wildfires in Canada, those of us who live in California and other parts of the West can offer some advice about how to stay safe and what to expect in the coming smoke-filled days.
In the West, we have become accustomed to the grim recurrence of weeklong, nearly annual stretches during which wildfire smoke brings outdoor life to a virtual halt. We have incorporated the sight of orange and brown daytime skies into the “new normal” of life on a warming planet, and we have tried our best to figure out how to adapt.
From school kids to day laborers to U.S. senators, dealing with wildfire smoke has become a shared burden in the West, and now millions more Americans on the East Coast are experiencing that unwanted reality.
Welcome to the climate crisis reality Oregonians and Westerners have been living with for years. https://t.co/89WNmtVTSE
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) June 7, 2023
Here, then, are a few observations and tips on how to navigate a world in which the air itself has become an adversary.
Monitor air quality
First, it’s important to come to terms with the fact that simply being outdoors is unwise in the presence of air pollution from wildfire smoke. In California, people got used to regularly checking air quality apps and websites such as IQAir and AirVisual to gauge the current air quality index (AQI). On Wednesday, New York City had an AQI reading of 324, according to AirNow.gov. That qualifies as “hazardous” air. For reference, during the Camp Fire in 2018, San Francisco measured an AQI of 228.
Seal off indoor spaces and buy air filters for your home
While health experts urge people with preexisting health conditions like asthma to stay indoors when the AQI rises above 100, and above 150 for everyone else, remaining indoors is less helpful when windows or doors are left open or a space is not well-sealed. Harmful air particles born of wildfire smoke have a way of slipping into indoor spaces, and health officials advise the use of air purifiers that use HEPA filters.
Use N95 masks if you must go outside
It’s no coincidence that health experts advised using N95 masks — the same kind recommended during the coronavirus pandemic — to protect oneself against wildfire smoke.
“N95 masks offer the highest level of protection because they protect against both large and small particles rather than just large particles,” Dr. Louito Edje told the American Medical Association during the pandemic. That’s because N95s “are made of multiple layers of a synthetic fiber called polypropylene, and if they are worn as instructed, they block 95% of particles in the air from passing through,” Edje said.
If you do have to go outside to walk a dog or run an errand, wear an N95 if you can. Better yet, order them online rather than trekking out to a hardware store.
Be prepared for the bad air to drag on for days
While the hazardous air seemed to descend on the East Coast with little warning, it may not abate just as quickly. During the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., parts of the state more than 100 miles away were engulfed in unhealthy air for nearly two weeks straight.
Pay attention to your mental health
Coming to terms with the disorienting sensation of looking up at an orange or brown sky as well as the “Twilight Zone” reality that simply breathing can be hazardous can cause people to suffer anxiety that negatively impacts mental health.
A 2022 study published in the journal BMC Public Health that looked at those affected by wildfires on the West Coast found that “45.3% reported anxiety due to the smoke, and 21.4% reported feeling depressed because of the smoke.”