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Not only are the blazes from wildfires dangerous for you and your family, but the smoke that travels hundreds of miles from the source of the fire can also cause lasting harm.
To prepare for a wildfire, keep an emergency kit that is easily transportable.
Keep an eye on air quality warnings. If air quality is low, stay inside or wear a KN95 mask when you’re outside.
As climate change continues to impact weather patterns worldwide, people who live in the western part of the United States, especially California, are at a higher risk of wildfires. Not only are the blazes themselves dangerous, but the smoke that drifts over from wildfires in other locations (such as Canada) can have a lasting effect on your health.
It’s important to be prepared in case of fire, and to know what to do during a wildfire-triggered emergency. The following are some wildfire safety tips and health-related recommendations from Providence’s primary care providers:
Emergency Planning and Preparation
- Have an emergency kit ready to go. For wildfires, your kit should be easily transportable — unlike an earthquake where you may be stuck at home, you can be called to evacuate when there is a fire. Put your emergency supplies in a backpack that's not too heavy to carry, or a small, wheeled bag or cart. See the checklist below for what to pack.
- Draw up an evacuation plan. Have a safety route leading out of your neighborhood or where you work in case you need to get out quickly. If members of your family are separated, arrange a meeting spot at a location out of the danger zone of the fire, such as a relative's home. If you are pregnant or have young children, you will want to get out sooner rather than later. It’s also a good idea to have multiple evacuation routes, in case one is closed.
- Keep lines of communication clear. In case you are separated from family members, it's vital to have a means of connecting with them to make sure they are OK. Instead of having everyone try to call each other, set up a contact person who doesn’t live in the area — they can be the point person everyone checks in with when they are safely evacuated, or if they are being treated for injury at a hospital. Your contact person's number and email address should be entered into every family member's cell phone and included with the emergency kit.
- Stay alert. You'll want to be in the loop if an evacuation is called for your area. Counties and cities usually have programs in which you sign up for emergency alerts via text, phone or email in case of emergencies, as well as apps that cover many aspects of emergency preparedness. You can also follow your local government, fire department and state social media channels for updates, especially during wildfire season.
Emergency kit checklist
- First-aid supplies, including burn treatment items such as clean water, ointments and gauze bandages.
- Nonperishable food and water (each person in your family should have three days' worth of rations).
- Prescription medication and eyeglasses.
- Packs of sanitary wipes or a bottle of antibacterial hand wash.
- Copies of personal records, such as driver's licenses, birth certificates and health insurance documentation.
How to protect yourself during a fire
- Don't let smoke get in your eyes or lungs. It's easy to get sick from inhaling wildland fire smoke. The gases and particulate matter in the smoke can irritate your eyes, sinuses and throat, and cause headaches, difficulty breathing and a runny nose. People with chronic lung and heart conditions, seniors and pregnant women can also be adversely affected by wildfire smoke.
- Keep your hands clean. If you do have to vacate your home because of a wildfire, ideally your evacuation location will have running water. If it does, make sure to avoid sickness by washing your hands with soap and water. If water isn't available, use the alcohol-based hand sanitizer from your emergency kit.
- Treat any burns. In case you or a loved one suffers a minor burn during a fire, use the first-aid tools in your emergency kit. Soak the area with water for five minutes before applying the cream or ointment and loosely applying the gauze. Call 911, as you'll also want to get medical attention from emergency responders as soon as possible.
Staying safe from stray wildfire smoke
Even if you don’t live near wooded areas or that may be prone to wildfires, it’s important to know how to stay safe from smoke that drifts hundreds of miles away from its origin. In spring and summer 2023, for example, smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted far into the United States, endangering the health of millions of people.
The following are some rules of thumb for keeping your lungs healthy from the toxic smoke:
- Watch your local weather report to learn how the air quality is.
- If the air quality is poor, stay inside as much as possible. If you have to venture outside, use a KN95 mask, which filters out 95% of particles from the smoke.
- Keep your home closed up with the air conditioner running, if possible.
- Create a clean room in your home that has fresh, filtered air circulating
- Avoid using air freshener sprays, as they will just add to the number of particles that are flying around in the air.
- If you have asthma and need to carry an inhaler, or if you have allergies and carry an EpiPen, keep them on your person at all times. When the air quality is bad, you are more likely to need these rescue medications.
There are many ways to become sick or injured from wildfires and, unfortunately, these natural disasters aren’t going away anytime soon. Even with wildfire mitigation and emergency planning, it is difficult to prevent wildfires completely. That’s why it is important to keep your eyes and ears open and to pay close attention to public health warnings and emergency response efforts that may emerge because of either fire or smoke.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.
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