California is not new to wildfire seasons with smoke that becomes widely dispersed throughout the state. The smoke dispersal is not necessarily a change, but the persistence, frequency and size of these fires have created recurring air quality concerns at times of the year when residents are not typically concerned about wildfires.
The Creek Fire along with multiple fires in California have made the Central Valley’s air extremely unhealthy. The community is affected and sensitive to smoke transport due to poor circulation caused by the mountains that surround the Valley.
Dr. Aric Mine from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Fresno State has researched atmospheric science and air quality for over five years. “Everyone can be affected by wildfire smoke,” Mine said. “Particulate (air particles) exposure is a health concern because the very small, fine particles 2.5 microns in size or smaller can be difficult for your lungs to remove and could dissolve and/or move into your bloodstream.”
Wildfire smoke is not exclusively from wood, so these particles can range in chemical composition due the variety of things we see burning in more populated areas such as cars, paint, roofing, insulation or more.
Smoke exposure increases stress on your cardiovascular system. People with pre-existing conditions are most sensitive and at-risk during smoke exposure. Cardiovascular stress can exacerbate pre-existing conditions like asthma, lung diseases and hypertension. The hazards and consequences can vary widely depending on how often a person is exposed, the concentration of particulate during exposure and the activity level during exposure. Mild consequences would include throat/eye irritation, eye dryness and headache. More severe health consequences from smoke exposure are stroke and heart attack. People should try to limit particulate exposure all together to reduce the health hazards.
Mine offers some simple and effective tips for protecting you and your family from the dangers of air pollution:
- Close your windows. Keeping your windows closed is the first step in keeping the smoky air out of your home. The next steps would be circulation and filtration. Use fans to circulate the air in your home and if possible, use filters to remove particles from the air.
- Use central cooling. Keep windows and doors closed in your home. Consider using fans to circulate air. Inspect your filter to ensure it does not need to be replaced.
- Avoid certain chores. You should avoid vacuuming, dusting and anything that kicks up dust particles for the time being. These activities can further degrade indoor air quality. Wet mopping and vacuuming with HEPA-filtered vacuums are safer alternative cleaning methods.
- Stay indoors. You should stop all outdoor activity when it’s smoky. This includes running and recreating. If you can smell smoke, you shouldn’t be exerting yourself outside.
- Use a N95 mask. Cloth masks typically don’t protect against smoke. To protect against smoke, you should use an N95 mask to remove fine particles. Fine particles typically pass through cloth masks.
- Change your air filters. Air filters in central cooling can remove smoke particles from the air and will clean and clarify the air in your home in the process. Beware that not all filters can capture and filter out smoke particles. HEPA filters can be particularly effective at filtering out smoke particles and are widely available. Air filters should be changed on the timeline specified by the filter manufacturer. There are often lights or sensors on filter devices that will indicate the need for cleaning if possible, or replacement. Keeping your filter up to date will ensure your home air is consistently removing particles.
- Use an air purifier. Air purifiers can be helpful for removing air particulate. You can purchase air purifiers that have been more rigorously tested for removing specific sizes of particles. These air purifiers will usually have information on how much air can be cleaned in an hour and the specific range of sizes that can be filtered. There’s also a video and instructions on how to build your own.
- Stay informed. In Fresno and Fresno County, there are air quality sensors taking hourly measurements. The best place to access this data and lots of other air quality information is org. The Real-time Air Advisory Network (RAAN) will provide you with the current air quality and forecasts for future air quality. You can also see the hourly air quality for both ozone and particulate matter (PM 2.5; the primary pollutants of concern in California), annual air quality reports (by county), policy and legislation related to air quality, and even grants/incentives for how you and the community can improve air quality. It’s also important to check out the immediate air quality when exercising as air quality forecasts can change.
There’s lots of great data available from government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and AirNow. These agencies have air quality information for the entire United States, including graphics and additional resources about air quality and many other environmentally relevant concerns. There’s also air quality reporting apps for download, and the air quality index is often reported within most weather apps. The Air Quality Index uses the data and measurements mentioned above and applies a color coded system to translate and communicate air quality. The colors are a quick way to communicate air quality and the health hazard. There’s often an advisory reported alongside the colors providing information on suggested outdoor activity level.
There are a lot of excellent resources available to learn more and to monitor air quality. There is a vast array of low-cost sensors that you can see around the world. These sensors are less accurate than those from RAAN above, but they generally capture the air quality and air quality trends. This is one example of a lost cost sensor network.
For more information on the research Dr. Aric Mine is conducting at Fresno State contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.