On May 20, the Loma Fire burned 7 acres and sent ash and smoke billowing into the windy Santa Barbara skies before it was contained early the next morning.
Though the blaze itself was brought under control in a few hours, the often-overlooked harm from this and the thousands of other fires across California is the impact to the state’s air quality, and the health of its residents.
Smoke and ash, specifically from wildfires burning wood and other organic materials, contain fine particles known as particulate matter that can silently wreak havoc on the lungs.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the biggest public health threat from smoke is these microscopic particles, which can penetrate deep into your lungs and cause a host of other health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.
Lyz Bantilan, public information officer for Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District (ACPD), encourages county residents to plan for poor air quality conditions caused by future wildfire smoke. She recommends people have an HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter and designate a “clean room” for when smoke is present.
“Have a plan with how you will deal with smoke,” Bantilan said.
A clean room could be any room in your house, which can be sealed from outside smoke with airtight windows and doors where you can go when public officials advise residents to stay inside during active fires.
Bantilan said these rooms should be somewhere where you are comfortable spending a lot of time, and should be fitted with a HEPA filter, or a homemade filter made using materials easily available at hardware stores and online retailers.
“Have a clean room setup,” Bantilan said. “The best protection against wildfire smoke is to stay indoors.”
The HEPA filters run about $75, while the do-it-yourself filter can be made by attaching a 20-inch MERV-rated air filter to the back of a box fan, and the materials can be purchased for under $40.
Scroll down for graphics showing how to make your own indoor air filter or choose and use an air purifier to create clean indoor air during wildfires.
Bantilan said smoke from wildfires reached 96% of California counties in 2020, and all residents should be aware of their area’s air quality regardless of proximity to wildfires.
“Even when our county is fortunate enough to not have a wildfire, I really encourage people to go to our website,” she said.
Last September, the Air Pollution Control District issued an Air Quality Warning for the county due to smoke from out-of-the-area wildfires.
The district has a robust network of monitoring stations to measure air quality, with daily forecasts measuring ozone and particulate pollution. There is also a network of about 40 PurpleAir sensors throughout the county with real-time monitoring available to the public.
“These are great at showing trends in air quality,” Bantilan said.
In active-fire situations when the skies are visibly smoky, masks can help against particulate inhalation if worn properly — but public officials warn that the cloth masks that became the norm to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus do not protect against the fine particulates found in smoke and ash.
“Masks should not be someone’s first line of defense,” Bantilan said. “Cloth face coverings do not adequately protect you from wildfire smoke.”
N-95 masks are often used by firefighters and can prevent damage caused by smoke particles, and county agencies handed them out for free during the hazardous air quality conditions of the 2017 Thomas Fire.
Bantilan said the best way to avoid the effects of smoky air is to stay indoors during a wildfire.
Side effects from the smoke and ash can be coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, lightheadedness, dizziness, phlegm and wheezing. Children, seniors and those with asthma or other lung and heart conditions are most vulnerable to these effects of air pollution, as well as adults who work or exercise outdoors for extended periods of time.
Late spring and early summer months with dry conditions and warm winds have typically been the most fire-heavy times of the year, but in recent years officials have transitioned to considering the risk of wildfires all year long.
“Wildfire season is now year-round in Santa Barbara,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Public Information Officer Mike Eliason.
Eliason said that now officials consider the months from April to November as high-fire season and the rest of the year as low-fire season.
Even when fires are located hundreds of miles away from the county, the hazardous smoke particulates can travel and affect air quality across a vast region.
“As for smoke or ash, you’re at the mercy of the winds, and atmospheric conditions,” Eliason said. “The smoke may not be able to disperse adequately into the atmosphere, causing smoky conditions from both local and distant fires. The best thing is to keep your windows closed.”
Eliason said that the public’s best guidelines are to use common sense, and listen to public officials when they advise to stay inside during wildfires.
Recently there have been instances of residents driving to the location of fires to get a closer look, which poses a danger to them and emergency services trying to get to the scene.
“The recent Loma Fire highlighted the concern of firefighters for people coming out to view the fire,” Eliason said. “Firefighting equipment is racing to the scene, some of which are coming from outside the county, and may not know the neighborhoods very well. “
According to Cal Fire, 2020 was a record-setting year for wildfires in the state, with nearly 10,000 fires burning more than 4.2 million acres. Heading into the hottest months of the year, residents should stay aware of any local fires and district air quality reports as often as possible.
“Wildfire is an inescapable reality for Santa Barbara County and for the West. Those hillsides have burned in the past, and will burn in the future,” Eliason said. “Please take the time to prepare yourself and your home for the next fire.”
— Ryan P. Cruz is a Santa Barbara freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.