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Wildfire season has arrived

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Written by Karen Lewis, WSU Extension, August 2020.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID issued its Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook on August 1, 2020.  The agency predicts that the northwestern states will have above-normal potential for wildland fires through September. “August represents the peak of fire season for the West and Above Normal significant fire potential is expected across much of the Great Basin, northern California, Pacific Northwest, and northern Rockies. The North American Monsoon is forecast to remain intermittent, which will provide chances of lightning without moisture surges extending into portions of the Great Basin, California, Pacific Northwest, and northern Rockies. Given the dry fuels, any lightning will likely result in increased fire activity and above-normal significant large fire potential into September” (NIFC Aug 1, 2020).

The Washington State Department of Health issued the following COVID-19 and Wildfire Smoke communication on July 28, 2020

“This wildfire season is going to be unique as we continue to respond to COVID-19. This year we are especially concerned about health impacts as breathing in wildfire smoke may worsen symptoms for those with COVID-19 and many of those vulnerable to wildfire smoke are also vulnerable to COVID-19.

How we protect ourselves from wildfire smoke is going to be different with COVID-19. It will be more difficult to go to public spaces where the air is cleaner and cooler than our homes may be. N95 respirators should be reserved for healthcare and frontline workers because N95 respirator supplies are limited. Cloth face coverings do not provide much protection from wildfire smoke. Take steps to prepare your home for wildfire smoke by improving air filtration and creating a clean air space”.

Guidance for wildfire smoke and COVID-19 during the 2020 wildfire season (PDF)

Symptoms of exposure to wildfire smoke include:

  • burning, watery or dry eyes
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • coughing or wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • irregular heartbeat
  • chest pain

High levels of smoke may worsen symptoms or trigger health effects for people with heart or lung disease.

Smoke exposure can be life-threatening.

Get connected, stay informed, be prepared

Air Quality Index (AQI)

The Air Quality Index, or AQI, is the system used to warn the public when air pollution is dangerous and is used for reporting daily air quality. It tells you how clean or polluted your air is, and what associated health effects might be a concern for you.

The AQI is a number that the EPA calculates for the five major air pollutants; ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

The AQI focuses on health effects you may experience within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution, and the greater the health concern.

For example, an AQI value of 50 represents good air quality with little potential to affect public health, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality. An AQI value of 100 generally corresponds to the national air quality standard for the pollutant, which is the level EPA has set to protect public health. AQI values below 100 are generally thought of as satisfactory. When AQI values are above 100, air quality is considered to be unhealthy-at first for certain sensitive groups of people, then for everyone as AQI values get higher
https://www.airnow.gov/sites/default/files/2018-04/air-quality-guide_pm_2015_0.pdf

WAQA vs. AQI

Both use color-coded categories to show when air quality is good, moderate, or unhealthy. The difference is that the Washington State’s WAQA is based on lower levels of fine particle pollution than the federal AQI. Studies show that levels of particles in the air that we previously thought were safe can cause illness and death. Some examples of fine particles are smoke and dust. This lower value results in earlier alerts to protect your health.

Image of the WAQA guide put out by the WA ecology department.
Link to the English version of this guide
Link to the Spanish version of this guide

Checking local air quality is as easy as checking the weather. You can find the latest air quality values online, on an app or you can sign up to receive AQI forecasts by e-mail:

  • AQI on the Internet
  • AQI via e-mail. Sign up for EnviroFlash https://www.enviroflash.info is a free service that will alert you via e-mail when air quality is forecast to be a concern in your area.
  • AQI on Phone Apps
    • EPA Smoke Sense
    • Air Bubbles
    • Common weather apps like Weather Underground, Weather Bug, Apple Weather. Accuweather has a fire alert but I could not find an AQI
    • Siri, Alexa, and Cortana can answer “What is the air quality index today?”
      (Google and Android assistants can likely do the same search.)

Protection

Masks: NIOSH-certified face masks designated N, P, or R with the number 95 or higher work well for particle reduction. Fitted correctly and worn properly, face masks are the best short-term solution when you must be outdoors in high smoke conditions. None of these reduce exposure to gases present in smoke.

More information on masks and mask fitting can be found at: https://lni.wa.gov/dA/ae2fa7aaea/WildfireSmokeAndDustMasksAtWork.pdf

Complete Wildfire Toolkits can be found at:

https://www.epa.gov/smoke-ready-toolbox-wildfires

https://www.doh.wa.gov/CommunityandEnvironment/AirQuality/SmokeFromFires/SmokefromFiresToolkits

Firewise Landscape Resources

Firewise landscaping incorporates fire safety into landscape design to help ensure your home is safe even when a fire comes close.

WSU Extension
https://extension.wsu.edu/chelan-douglas/gardening/mg/firewise-landscapes/

Idaho Firewise
https://idahofirewise.org/firewise-landscapes/


Contact

Karen Lewis
WSU Extension
Regional Specialist
kmlewis@wsu.edu


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