How To Protect Yourself From Poor Air Quality This Fire Season

Jul 15, 2020

Preparing for wildfire season includes a lot – creating 50 feet of defensible space around your home, signing up for your counties emergency alert system, having a go bag packed and ready and having an evacuation plan created and rehearsed – but even if you’re not in a high-risk fire zone, there’s also another important health threat we see every year from wildfires that you should consider – smoke. 

And this year officials are saying, it’s really important to defend yourself from it because smoke can reduce the body’s ability to fight infections and viruses — and it can worsen the symptoms of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19.

To learn more about what you can do to better protect yourself from poor air quality this fire season, NSPR’s Matt Fidler spoke with Jason Mandly, the air quality planner for the Butte County Air Quality District. Matt started off by confessing to Jason that he’d never heard of an air quality planner before.

Here are highlights from their conversation. You can also listen at the top of the page.

Interview Highlights

On what an air quality planner does

We do have plans established to get us on the path to meet clean air standards. I guess that's the main place where planner comes into play. Also, I do environmental review on any CEQA documents where planning is required. But I also keep an eye on wildfire smoke. Track it to see if it's going to impact our area, try to increase the amount of monitoring that our district is doing. The California Air Resources Board does most of the monitoring in our county. However, we've been trying to put out low cost sensors in more areas throughout Butte County to have more of a monitoring presence so folks can know more specifically what their air quality is in the local area.

On what North State residents can do to prepare their homes for smoky conditions

Well, the best thing to do is to make sure that your home or at least one or two rooms in your home can be clean, have lower particulates than the outside air if there was a wildfire. One way to do that is if you have my house with a central HVAC system, you have a place where you can put a filter. A lot of these filters are available at a lot of local hardware stores, or you can buy them online. Many houses in many places have what's called a Merv rating on their other filters and that's kind of the efficiency of their filter. Merv 13 filters are usually the grade of filters that start filtering out wildfire smoke. And there's also Merv 14 and 15, which are even better, but also more expensive. It is good to have extra Merv 13 filters on hand if possible in case there is a wildfire because these filters can filter out a lot of that wildfire smoke.

On what to do if you don't have an HVAC system

All right, so if you don't have a central HVAC system, the best thing to do would be to find a room in your home where you're going to spend a lot of your time if there was a wildfire, and do what you can to prepare it. That could be purchasing a portable air filtration system, a HEPA filter, so that you at least have one room that can have improved air quality, somewhere usually that you would spend a lot of time — perhaps the bedroom if you're going to be of course sleeping there, you want to have good air quality. And also this would also be a room where you don't have too many leaks to the outside or where it's not drawing in outside air. There are portable air filters available locally and online. Some air purifiers may not be appropriate. I know there are some that create ozone. And these air purifiers generally are not the ones that you want to look for when trying to protect your room from wildfire smoke. You want to go more for the HEPA filter type that can really remove a lot of the particulates at high efficiency.

On recommendations for business owners

As far as our guidance to businesses, it would be the same as homes. If they have, you know, a central HVAC system where they can put in some higher grade filtration or at least create some safe spaces at the place of work. From what I understand, Cal OSHA has emergency regulations in place now regarding wildfire smoke and the workplace. I would need to get back to you on on the details of that, but Cal OSHA is the lead on that. 

On whether your eyes are a reliable measurement of the smoky conditions outside

Yeah, you know, visibility can certainly give you a rough estimate. On our air quality index chart, which breaks out the different categories of poor air quality, whether it's moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy for all, very unhealthy, etc., there is a visibility range in miles that corresponds with it. So if you can only see about a mile ahead of you, that's a good indication that air quality might be getting into the unhealthy or very unhealthy range. But we do have that chart available on our website. Again, it's a rough estimate. Nowadays, we do have links to almost real time data on our website and that's another way that folks can check to see the air quality in their local area.

Our main website is ButteAirQuality.com. And we have links to both the official monitoring stations. We have one in Chico, one in Gridley and one in Paradise. Those are the official monitors for our area. But we also have what are known as purple air sensors. These are low cost, but easily deployable sensors that we have in several locations around the county, including Oroville, Thermalito, Magalia, Nord, Biggs, Palermo. And so we have these in some of the smaller communities around the county as well as dispersed throughout Chico in order to kind of give a better sense of how air quality is at a more localized level. The link to that data is also on our website at ButteAirQuality.com.

On the symptoms that you might expect someone to have when they've had overexposure to smoke

Well of course those that have pre-existing conditions, some of their symptoms from, for example, asthma may be exacerbated. Usually there's stinging or watering eyes — might impact everyone. If air quality is poor enough, it could also lead to difficulty breathing.

On whether people with COVID-19 are at a higher risk of severe symptoms from smoke

Well, certainly, you know, those with any sort of respiratory conditions, whether it's COVID-19 or any COPD, asthma, any respiratory conditions, are more susceptible to be impacted by wildfire smoke. So we would consider those with COVID-19 to be included in that group. And so they would want to take a look at air quality, there is a AQI category called unhealthy for sensitive groups. And so those impacted by COVID-19 would fall under that sensitive groups category.

On whether cloth masks are effective for smoky conditions

Unfortunately a lot of the cloth masks that are available right now, due to COVID-19, are not adequate to filter out smoke particles. They're very small, they can get through cotton, they can get through cloth and they can get through a lot of the desk masks, the surgical masks, bandanas that folks are wearing, and so it would take something like an N95 respirator to protect you from wildfire smoke if you had to be outdoors. And as you know, right now, there's somewhat of a shortage with the higher grade N95 respirators. So, the best suggestion would be to if possible stay indoors, if there was to be a major wildfire, creating unhealthy conditions. And if indoors, you know, try to find a space with air filtration.

On the availability of clean air shelters in Butte County

So there were shelters in place during the Camp Fire, of course. The best thing to do and Butte County, the government of the county, would be the best point of contact on this, were there to be a wildfire emergency, but is to to just check in with local media and the county on a case-by-case basis. If a wildfire were to appear, there would be information on which places would be appropriate. Of course, you know, there needs to be some nuance because of COVID-19 with regards to clean air shelters, but again, there would be direction coming from the county or from local law enforcement or officials.

On what else to know about air quality and wildfires

We just hope for the best but if we were to be impacted by wildfire either locally or from afar because some smoke can travel hundreds of miles, depending on where the wildfire is, if we are to be impacted, you can check ButteAirQuality.com for real time air quality data. We also have links on our website with more information on how to protect yourself from poor air quality. We have links to fact sheets on how to set up some air filtration in your home, how to protect your pets, and some other information like that.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.