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Don’t wait for skies to turn hazy to prepare for wildfire smoke

Smoke along the Seattle skyline in September 2020. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images)

As several wildfires burn in Washington state and across the Pacific Northwest, it’s never too soon to be prepared to deal with wildfire smoke.

Why Puget Sound likely won’t be seeing wildfire smoke this week

If you’re in a part of the state where there is wildfire smoke, experts want you to be alert to signs that the gases and particulates in the smoke may be impacting your health. Those signs include burning or itchy eyes, sore throat, headaches, or nausea.

“That should really be a sign to stop what you’re doing and get in clean air,” said UW Medicine Pulmonologist Dr. Cora Sack.

“The groups that are most susceptible to the health effects of wildfire smoke include the elderly or those over the age of 65, people with underlying health conditions like lung or heart disease, pregnant women, and infants,” Sack explained. “If you’re a sensitive population, you may experience more severe symptoms and health effects, and that could include difficulty breathing or chest pain.”

At that point, Sack says you should call your doctor or go to the emergency room to be evaluated.

That said, you don’t have to be part of an at-risk group or have an underlying health concern to be affected by smoky air.

For those in an area where there’s not yet hazy skies, it’s a good time to make sure you’re prepared.

“Have a plan for what to do if the days get smoky,” Dr. Sack said.

Knowing where you can go to get safe air quality, what to do to prepare your home, and even speaking with your doctor about what to do if you experience any health effects can all be done now.

To improve the air quality in your home, you can close all windows and doors. If you have central air conditioning, Dr. Sack says to put the air on recirculate and make sure you have a good quality filter. If you don’t have central air, you can get a portable air filter, and Dr. Sack recommends a HEPA filter. You can also make your own filter by adding one to a box fan (see a video how-to from the UW here).

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Dr. Sack noted that as far as using masks as protection in smoky conditions, cloth masks used for COVID-19 aren’t very effective at filtering out the dangerous small particles in wildfire smoke. She says you could wear an N-95 mask to help protect you, but it should be fit tested first.

“Anyone who’s lived in the Pacific Northwest over the past few years has experienced firsthand that wildfire seasons have become more extreme and are lasting longer,” Sack said. “Most of the research to date has focused on what are the short-term effects from breathing smoke. What we don’t know yet are what are the health effects from these longer periods of smoke that accumulate overtime.”

The KIRO Radio Newsdesk contributed to this report.

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