This post has been updated to better address the added challenges of managing the dangers of wildfire season at a time when communities are already impacted by COVID-19.
At this point, we've been through enough wildfires to be familiar with the myriad ways our lungs take a beating when the air quality outside is poor — including increased risk of asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, COPD, and heart failure.
What we aren’t used to: fewer firefighters, shortages of N95 masks, an increased number of individuals already suffering from respiratory problems related to the pandemic, and emotional and mental fatigue from already spending months cooped up indoors. We can also add to that list rolling blackouts and PG&E’s calls to reduce energy consumption.
It’s more important than ever to take the necessary precautions to keep ourselves safe — both from wildfire smoke and COVID-19, which can hurt our lung health and compound respiratory damage. Experts' advice for protecting ourselves during normal wildfire season is clear and simple: stay indoors and, if you must go outside, wear a mask. What's rarely discussed? How to keep the air in our homes clean.
So here are the 5 most impactful steps you can take to keep the air in your home safe during smoky days:
Seal Openings Tight
First, the obvious stuff: the benefits of staying indoors come from getting away from the polluted air outside.
To keep it there, keep doors and windows closed. You can kick up your home's protection by getting new windows too. The jury is still out on exactly how old windows typically are before you see an important drop in performance, but replacing them will stop pollutants from sneaking in through poorly sealed spots.
Pro tip: Before replacing your window(s), look into new features such as energy efficiency. The added temperature comforts and savings are often worth the higher price tag. Need help? You can always have a House Manager replace the window for you.
Filter, Filter, Filter
The next best thing you can do is invest in a true High Efficiency Particulate Air Purifier (HEPA) and designate a safe air room in your home. The particles introduced by wildfire smoke are much finer than other forms of pollution (they're tiny — just a quarter the size of a human hair) and will slip right through the fibers of most air purifiers. The true HEPA purifiers are specially designed with a higher density of fibers to capture at least 99.97% of these lighter, smaller particles. These are particularly helpful for those most at risk: children, the elderly, pregnant women, individuals with asthma or other pre-existing respiratory troubles, as well as individuals with COVID-19.
Use Central AC Only When Needed
Central AC is a great tool in your wildfire smoke protection toolkit, if you have it. The key is to use it conservatively. To do your part to avoid strain on the grid, PG&E suggests setting your thermostat no lower than 78 degrees, and offers tips for keeping your house cool during the day. As always, proper maintenance of your air conditioning unit will help it run more efficiently. Keep the unit clear of debris and the air filters clean. It’s not a replacement for a HEPA purifier, but your central air does provide some additional filtering power.
If your power gets shut-off due to a rolling blackout, or you don’t have air conditioning, you may want to take advantage of one of the local cooling centers that have opened up during this most recent heat wave.
Pro tip: Stay on top of air filter maintenance with AAA House Manager. Cleaning and, if necessary, replacing air filters is just one of the many things our House Managers take care of during twice yearly home health check ups.
Get Your Clean On
Your doors and windows are closed, you've turned on your new HEPA purifier, and have the AC going. Your home is a fortress on lockdown; nothing's coming in. But now it’s time to do your weekly grocery store trip. Just like pets track in dirt from outside, you’ll bring particles home with you when you return. They like to hitch a ride on your clothes and skin, and then settle in your bed or on your couch.
- Change out of clothes after running errands
- Double down on your cleaning schedule for sheets
- Hop in the shower before going to sleep
- Mop to catch those pesky particles
Pro tip: Avoid vacuuming. The air will send the particles flying, increasing the risk for you and your family. You can either wet mop or try damp mopping. The latter won't damage hardwood floors.
Skip Smoke-generating Activities
There are a number of ways you or your family may inadvertently be introducing smoke into your home.
You'll want to avoid: burning candles, using your fireplace or gas stove, and definitely no smoking any tobacco products indoors.
Unfortunately, wildfires and poor air quality have become a normal part of life here in the Bay Area, but at least you can protect yourself and loved ones from the smoke's effects. Start preparing now by purchasing a HEPA purifier if you don't already have one (purifiers and masks often sell out right after wildfires) and taking care of things around the house like cleaning air filters or installing new windows. You know where to find us if you need help!