Think Ahead During Wildfire Season

In areas prone to wildfires, preparation can bring peace of mind.

Wildfire season has gotten longer and more intense, leaving many of us feeling on edge. But a bit of strategic prep work can mean the difference between constant anxiety about your safety and the air you’re breathing—and confidence that you’ve taken steps to protect yourself and your family. Here are eight things you can do now to be more prepared for wildfires in your area.

Sign up for Alerts

Ensure you’re on the list to get important updates—such as Wireless Emergency Alerts and notices from your local community—to stay on top of any situation. Daily air-quality reports are helpful, too, so that you can avoid setting out on a run or doing yard work on a day when it’s too smoky for safe outdoor exertion. The website AirNow is run by the EPA and its local partners; it has interactive maps and air-quality reports. If you prefer “push” notifications, sign up for its EnviroFlash service that sends current conditions and forecasts via text to your phone. AirNow also offers a free app, available for both Apple and Android.

Mask Up

Invest in quality, well-made masks for your household. Per the EPA: “Fine, inhalable particulate matter [fine is defined as 2.5 microns or smaller in size] is the air pollutant of greatest concern to public health from wildfire smoke because it can travel deep into the lungs and may even enter the bloodstream.” These tiny particles can linger in the air for weeks and even months after a wildfire, causing short-term symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and headaches, and long-term health effects such as heart disease and strokes. Bandanas, cloth masks, gaiters and paper masks do not protect against wildfire smoke—they can’t filter that fine particulate matter. Read more about choosing masks that can capture particles as small as .1 micron, for fire and smoke protection, here

Touch base with the Pros

If anyone in your household is an infant, an elder, or dealing with asthma or cardiovascular issues (COPD, heart disease, etc.), have a conversation with a physician. You may need to take extra precautions, or be prepared with medications, in the event of a wildfire in your area. Check in with the company that services your HVAC, too, to make sure you are using the best filters for weather conditions. Know how to use the recirculate mode on the A/C, should you need to stop pumping in outdoor air on smokier days.

Stock Your Shelves

A hearty stash of non-perishable foodstuffs can keep you from having to grocery shop on a smoky day, and can be taken with you if you do need to evacuate. 

Invest in a Portable Air Purifier

Designed to improve air quality in the home, portable air filters resemble a tower fan or a large humidifier and can be moved from room to room. They can supplement the work your HVAC system is doing, by removing additional smoke particles and allergens from the air (the EPA offers more data here). Many people will choose to use an air purifier in the rooms they are most often in, such as a bedroom or a living room. Look for an energy efficient, portable air purifier with a HEPA filter, and consider the size of the room. (Room size will be expressed in cubic feet.) 

Designate a Safe Room

Pick a room in your home that has the fewest windows and doors, and no fireplace. (If there are openings that are hard to close off, seal them with plastic sheeting and sturdy tape.) If air quality is especially poor, this will be your go-to room, and you can move your portable air purifier in here as well.

Protect Your Pets

Do your fuzzy friends have what they need? The Humane Society of the United States recommends that cats and dogs have a collar, a microchip, and an ID tag listing your cell number. Find out before there’s a crisis whether pets are allowed at your local emergency shelter; or, identify a friend who can pet-sit in a pinch. Keep pets indoors if air quality outdoors is poor; they breathe the same air you do. Include pet food, leashes, water bowls, and pet medications in your go bag, and have a travel crate ready.

Pack a Go Bag

Start with the basics: Pack three days’ worth of non-perishable food and keep a store of at least three gallons of water per person. Have a three-day supply of underwear and one change of clothing per person. Pack quality masks and replacement filters for each person in your group, as well as medications. And throw in some toilet paper, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned as a society, when things get real, it’s BYO-TP. 

Paper trails: Because electronic devices may not work properly during an emergency, print out or purchase paper maps and have at least two evacuation routes planned. Gather important documents such as marriage and birth certificates, passports, home insurance, and other key financial information in a sturdy, waterproof folder.

Comms: Bring a battery-powered radio, a battery pack to recharge your phone, and maybe even a portable inverter that will allow you to run small electronics from your car. 

Extras: For high-use, easy-to-lose items, consider packing duplicates. A extra pair of contact lenses or reading glasses, for example, and a spare set of house keys. And don’t forget a flashlight!

While wildfires are an undeniable threat for millions of people, you can fight back with preparation—and breathe a little easier. Stay safe out there, everyone!