Photo of smoke of Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, taken by Annie Lindgren
Annie Lindgren, written for North Forty News
Wildfires burning near and far have impacted air quality throughout the Western states. Some days you can’t step outside without smelling smoke, much less catch a clear view of the mountains.
In 2018, Lauren and Brett Raver bought a home in Rist Canyon, on a peaceful mountain property above 8,000ft elevation. The couple experienced their first evacuation with the Lewstone Fire. Lauren shares, “We learned a lot that will better prepare us for next time this happens. The fire department, supportive neighbors, Me Oh My Pie in Laporte, and the Red Cross were a huge help.” The Ravers were able to stay with friends for the few days they were evacuated. When asked about the smoke, Lauren said it wasn’t impacting them too badly, but she has friends who are having a hard time with it. Lauren, who works in Fort Collins, noted, “Surprisingly, the smoke has been worse in town than it has been at home.”
With one more thing added to the list of ‘2020’s disasters having an impact on our health and safety,’ let us take a look at recommendations from the professionals. The below information is compiled from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and local sources The City of Fort Collins, Larimer County, and uchealth, with links at the end of the article.
Why is smoke a problem, and what are symptoms of smoke inhalation?
Smoke consists of a mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat is the microscopic particles that can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases.
Due to the size of the particles in smoke, only N95 or P100 respirators can help protect the lungs from smoke or ash. Masks must have two straps, and fit tightly over your nose and under your chin. The CDC cautions against using clothe or dusk masks for protection, as they will not protect your lungs from smoke.
The CDC lists the following symptoms of smoke inhalation:
- Wheezing and shortness of breath, and trouble breathing normally
- Chest Pain
- Stinging eyes
- Scratchy throat and coughing
- Runny nose
- Irritated sinuses
- Asthma attack
- Fast Heartbeat
Who is most at risk?
While anyone can have trouble when breathing in smoke, certain sensitive populations may experience more severe acute and chronic symptoms. Most healthy adults and children will recover quickly from smoke exposure and will not suffer long-term health consequences.
The EPA puts the following populations most at risk:
- Children: Children’s lungs are still developing, and they inhale more air per pound of body weight (including contaminants) compared to adults. They also tend to spend more time outside and exercising.
- Pregnant woman: Research has shown that smoke (of any kind) can impact fetuses during a critical time in development and that women’s health is more vulnerable during pregnancy.
- Older adults: This population experiences a decline with age in the body’s natural defenses, and often have a higher prevalence of pre-existing lung and heart conditions.
- Individuals with health conditions: Asthma and other respiratory diseases, including COPD and cardiovascular disease, lead to a higher risk of complications.
What do we need to do to take care of our health when air quality is bad?
The City of Fort Collins shares the following recommendations:
- Limit your physical activity and time outdoors.
- Limit activities that increase air pollution, such as recreational backyard fires.
- Close windows and doors in your home.
- If you have central A/C, you can run it in ‘fan-only’ mode to recirculate air. If you don’t have AC, use ceiling or room fans to circulate inside air. You can also run your furnace in ‘fan-only’ mode. Be sure to check your air filter and replace if needed.
- If you do not have AC, you can also designate one room in your home to be a clean air room. To learn more about clean air rooms: https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/create-clean-room-protect-indoor-air-quality-during-wildfire
- If you or someone in your household has a medical condition requiring the use of AC or other equipment, you may qualify for help: https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/create-clean-room-protect-indoor-air-quality-during-wildfire.
- Before heading out, check our local air quality monitoring stations for current conditions, airnow.gov is a great resource.
- Check the smoke outlook by visiting https://www.colorado.gov/airquality/advisory.aspx.
- Sign up for emergency alerts with NoCoAlerts or call/text 970-962-2173.
The CDC offers some additional recommendations and resources:
- Watch for local news or health warnings about smoke. Check air quality reports anywhere in the US by visiting airnow.gov. A lot of different factors impact air quality and not just proximity to the fire.
- Seek shelter elsewhere if you do not have an air conditioner, and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed.
- Use a freestanding indoor air filter with particle removal and follow the manufacturer’s instructions on filter replacement and device placement.
- Do not add to indoor pollution. Including using anything that burns, such as candles and fireplaces; vacuuming or sweeping stirs up particles; and smoking tobacco, or other products, indoors.
- Follow your doctor’s advice about medicines and your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease or cardiovascular disease. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.
Am I suffering from smoke inhalation or COVID?
Uchealth and CDC shares the following tips for knowing the difference between symptoms from smoke exposure and COVID-19:
- Both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19 can cause dry cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing.
- Learn about symptoms of COVID-19. Symptoms like fever or chills, muscle or body aches, and diarrhea are not related to smoke exposure. If you have any of these symptoms, the CDC COVID-19 Self-Checker can help you determine whether you need further assessment or testing for COVID-19. If you have questions after using the CDC COVID-19 Self-Checker, contact a healthcare provider.
- If you have severe symptoms, like difficulty breathing or chest pain, immediately call 911 or the nearest emergency facility.
- For more information on COVID symptoms or to take the self-checker assessment visit: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
For information on scheduling a free COVID test in Larimer County visit: https://www.larimer.org/health/communicable-disease/coronavirus-covid-19/covid-19-testing
What can I do if I live in a fire danger area?
Larimer County Emergency Preparedness has excellent resources that can help those at risk of evacuation or fire. Visit their webpage to find information and checklists on how to be prepared: https://www.larimer.org/health/emergency-preparedness-and-response/emergency-preparedness.
You can contact your local fire department with questions and to have someone come out and check your property for fire safety. An essential part of keeping a structure or house out of the line of fire is not having fuel leading a path up to it. Keeping grass and weeds mowed down and removing deadwood or other combustible items is helpful.
Come up with a plan for what to do if fire or evacuation happens. Discuss it with others in the household, including pets. Keep all your important documents in a fire-safe box. Disaster rarely gives much notice, and an ounce of planning can go a long way in cutting down on stress and loss later.
Is it just me, or are fire seasons getting worse?
Fires are a natural part of the forest cycle, but how humans have managed forests over the past 150 years has negatively impacted the normal biological processes. Forests, which used to be a patchwork of trees and meadows, are now filled with more trees than the landscape can support. The abundance of trees increases disease transmission and insect problems, adding to the number of dead trees, while hotter and dryer summers increase ignition chances. Things will worsen in the decades to come, and we have so many houses built in these forests. Prescribed burning, mechanical thinning, and managing wildfires (while allowing them to burn) helps.
Fascinating TED Talks on the topic: Paul Hessburg’s Why wildfires have gotten worse-and what we can do about it: https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_hessburg_why_wildfires_have_gotten_worse_and_what_we_can_do_about_it?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare
We all hope this fire season comes to an end quickly, along with the other disasters 2020 surprised us with. Firefighters are working hard at getting fires under control and protecting structures. As individuals, we can do what we can to support those impacted while taking care of our health by staying indoors when air quality is terrible. Soon we will be enjoying fall colors, cooler temps, and fresh air in the mountains.
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) information on smoke and impact on health: https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/how-smoke-fires-can-affect-your-health
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information on smoke and impact on health: https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/wildfires/smoke.html
Uchealth information on taking care of your health during wildfires: https://www.uchealth.org/today/how-to-stay-safe-from-wildfire-smoke-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic/
City of Fort Collins Press Release, August 25, 2020: https://www.fcgov.com/news/?id=7836
Larimer County resources for fire safety and COVID:
Published in August 31, 2020 edition of North Forty News: https://northfortynews.com/category/health-and-wellness/wildfires-air-quality-and-what-to-do-about-2020s-latest-dishing-of-health-and-safety-impact/