Wildfires: What YOU Need to Know…

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Firefighter looking at a wildfire

This summer has been especially hot and dry, which creates an ideal environment for wildfires to ignite. They’ve been flaring up across the country and are a serious threat to people’s health and wellbeing. We all know wildfires can threaten wildlife, property, and our lives, but the smoke produced by these fires is just as devastating.

Smoke from wildfires is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and other materials. Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. What’s worse is that smoke from wildfires can travel long distances. So even if the fire is burning several counties over, the residual smoke can still threaten your health.

Smokey the bear holding shovelPrevent and Protect

Here are some simple tips to stay healthy if a wildfire threatens your area:

Prevent wildfires from starting. Of course the easiest way to protect your health is to help prevent a fire from ever starting. Check with your local fire department to be sure the weather is safe enough for burning before you light your match. Prepare, maintain, and extinguish campfires safely. Comply with local regulations if you plan to burn trash or debris.

Keep indoor air as clean as possible if you are advised to stay indoors. Keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. If you don’t have an air conditioner and it’s too warm to stay inside with the windows close, seek shelter in a designated evacuation center or away from the affected area.

screen shot of airnow.gov featuring a map of the US and it's current air quality
Check air quality reports at airnow.gov

Check local air quality reports. Listen and watch for news or health warnings about smoke. Find out if your community provides reports about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index (AQI). In addition, pay attention to public health messages about taking safety precautions, such as evacuation or sheltering in place. 

Follow the advice of your doctor or other healthcare provider about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or other lung disease. Consider evacuating the area if you are having trouble breathing. Call your physician for further advice if your symptoms worsen.

Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke.

Evacuation from the path of wildfires. Listen to the news to learn about current evacuation orders. Follow the instructions of local officials about when and where to evacuate. Take only essential items with you. Follow designated evacuation routes – others may be blocked–and expect heavy traffic. To learn how to make an evacuation plan and emergency supply kit click here.

For more information on wildfires visit: http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/wildfires/

Have wildfires affected your community? Tell us what you did to stay safe.

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2 comments on “Wildfires: What YOU Need to Know…”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    thanks for share any important and usefull information. i’ve never found this great article before this.

    If dust masks don’t provide adequate protection, what kind of mask is effective?

    Firefighters live by LCES. Lookouts—Communication—Escape Routes— Safety Zones.

    For people living in high wildfire hazard areas, this means there are effective ways to detect a fire start and these detection methods are reinforced during times of high fire danger and hot, dry, and windy weather.

    It means there are multiple methods of alerting people when a fire ignites. Those communication tools are regularly tested. Cell phones and social media are part of the alert system. However they fail quickly when cell towers and power go down.

    Escape routes are safe routes to rapidly travel out of the wildfire’s path. People need to be able to safely travel the escape routes even if the fire is burning on one or both sides. Under high winds, fire brands can cause new starts far out in front of the flaming front of the main fire. These new starts burn together. People escaping one fire often encounter new fires threatening their escape routes.

    Safety zones are large areas the wildfire can’t burn. Wildfires easily ignite buildings. Embers and fire brands ignite buildings even when surface fire can’t reach the structure. Burning buildings ignite neighboring buildings in chain reactions of destruction. An urban area is not necessarily a safe place. Effective safety zones need to be identified long before the fire starts and prepared to make sure they can accommodate the number of evacuees anticipated.

    If one is expected to evacuate, one needs a safe place to go and a safe and quick way to get there. Safe zones should be close. Time on escape routes should be brief. Because fire brands blown well out ahead of the fire, people are vulnerable to entrapment while traveling.

    Evacuation preparedness is a whole neighborhood task. Everyone should have an evacuation plan but in a high intensity, rapidly spreading wildfire, a personal plan may be too little without whole neighborhood, whole community serious preference preparedness and periodic practice.

    City and town fire departments usually are responsible for evacuation planning and preparedness. Neighborhoods should work with their fire department to collaborate in wildfire preparedness. LCES is a good start for organizing wildfire preparedness.

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Page last reviewed: April 30, 2012
Page last updated: April 30, 2012