Unhealthy Air / Smoke Event

In recent years, the Bay Area has experienced unprecedented fires and dense smoke, which are the result of years of impacts brought on by climate change. The reality is that heavy smoke will be in our future, so we all need to prepare ourselves, our homes, our loved ones, and community for smoke events.

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Date Posted: August 28th, 2020 @ 8:59 AM
Last Updated: January 20th, 2021 @ 7:52 PM

How to PREPARE for Unhealthy Air/Smoke Events

  • Plan to go to a cleaner air location if you are unable to seal your home or if dense smoke occurs during hot weather events and you cannot stay in your home. Heat takes precedent over smoke.
  • Sign up now for emergency alerts and stay informed:
  • Weatherize homes and buildings in preparation for air quality events by replacing or refurbishing old leaky windows and doors; use caulking to seal the openings.
  • Consider purchasing a non-ozone-producing air purifier (HEPA) to create a cleaner air room in your home or consider purchasing a MERV 13 or greater filter for your HVAC system to be used when experiencing a heavy smoke event.
  • Consider upgrading to an HVAC system that allows for both heating and cooling. Be sure it includes a mechanism to switch to “recirculate” to prevent smoke from entering the space.

How to STAY SAFE DURING Unhealthy Air/Smoke Events

  • Individuals with health conditions should talk to their physicians to develop a personal plan for dealing with smoke.
  • Elderly persons, pregnant individuals, children, and individuals with respiratory illnesses are particularly susceptible to elevated air pollution levels and should take extra precautions to avoid exposure.
  • Those with heart or lung disease, older adults, pregnant individuals, and children should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion, and should either reschedule outdoor activities or move them to another location.
  • Elevated particulate matter in the air can trigger wheezing in those who suffer from asthma, emphysema, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), or other respiratory conditions.
  • Asthmatics should follow their asthma management plan.
  • Keep up to two weeks’ worth of extra medication on hand. Be ready with plans to treat asthma or diabetes when there is smoke.
  • Individuals should contact their physician if they have cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms believed to be caused by smoke. Concerned individuals should consult their physician for personalized recommendations.

How to STAY SAFE DURING a Wildfire Smoke Event

  • Shelter in place. Staying indoors with windows and doors closed, where air quality is better, is the best way to protect your health. During high heat and heavy smoke events, keep indoor air cool or visit an air-cooling center.
  • Set air conditioning units and car vent systems to re-circulate to prevent outside air from moving inside.
  • Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing cough, a dry scratchy throat, runny nose, trouble breathing, and irritated sinuses. Stay hydrated by drinking water during heavy smoke events.
  • Avoid adding additional air pollution by curtailing activities, such as wood burning, lawn mowing, leaf blowing, driving, barbecuing, smoking, or other dust-producing activities. Avoid using hairspray and painting indoors. If possible, use the stove fan when cooking.
  • Leave the affected area if possible, for the duration of the heavy smoke event.

Information on ongoing air quality in the area can be found on the Air District website, http://baaqmd.gov, and residents are encouraged to visit http://acphd.org/air-quality.aspx for health and safety tips.

Emergency Respite Centers

Emergency Respite Centers provide indoor spaces with cleaner air and cooler temperatures. They are open to anyone who is seeking respite from high temperatures or poor air quality, especially our unsheltered neighbors. The City of Oakland will open Emergency Respite Centers when:

  • The EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) reaches “very unhealthy” levels of AQI 200 or above (see AirNow.gov)
  • The National Weather Service forecasts temperatures of 95 degrees or more for two days in a row, or
  • The outdoor air temperature reaches 100 degrees.

Emergency Respite Centers are anticipated to be open at the following locations:

  • · North Oakland Senior Center, 5714 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way
  • · César E. Chávez Branch of the Oakland Public Library, 3301 East 12th Street, #271
  • · City Hall, 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza
  • · 81st Avenue Library, 1021 81st Avenue

These locations are subject to change; check back here to confirm, or subscribe to AC Alerts to receive a phone call, text message, or email when Emergency Respite Centers are open.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Emergency Respite Centers will follow Alameda County Public Health Department guidelines to protect visitors and staff from COVID-19 exposure:

  • Health screenings will be conducted upon entry.
  • Visitors will be required to wear a face covering before entering. Masks will be provided for anyone who arrives without one.
  • Visitors and staff will maintain 6-foot social distancing from others (except family members) at all times.
  • Hand sanitizer and soap and water for handwashing will be provided.
  • The number of visitors will be monitored to prevent crowding and ensure everyone can maintain adequate physical distancing.
  • High-traffic areas and commonly used surfaces will be frequently disinfected.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Who is at greatest risk from wildfire smoke?

  • People who have heart or lung diseases are at higher risk of health impacts associated with wildfire smoke.
  • Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke. This may be due to their increased risk of heart and lung diseases.
  • Children are more likely to be affected by health threats associated with smoke. Children’s airways are still developing, and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. Also, children often spend more time outdoors engaged in physical activity and play.
  • Pregnant individuals and their unborn child are at higher risk of smoke effects.
  • Neighbors who live alone, the elderly, and those who cannot easily shelter-in-place indoors should be checked on regularly throughout the duration of air quality events.

How can I reduce my risk of health problems during an air quality event?

  • Have enough medication and food on hand (enough for more than 5 days, if possible).
  • Follow your health care provider’s advice about what to do if you have heart or lung disease.
  • If you have asthma, follow your asthma management plan.
  • If you feel sick, reduce your exposure to smoke and contact your health care provider.
  • Pay attention to public service announcements, health advisories, and air quality advisories.

How can I reduce smoke exposure indoors?

  • Stay inside with the doors and windows closed. Whether you have a central air conditioning system or a room unit, use high efficiency filters to capture fine particles from smoke. Ask an air conditioning professional what type of high efficiency filter your air conditioner can accept.
  • Seek shelter elsewhere if you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed.
  • Do not add to indoor air pollution. Do not burn candles or use gas, propane, woodburning stoves, fireplaces, or aerosol sprays. Do not fry or broil meat, smoke tobacco products, or vacuum. All of these can increase air pollution indoors.
  • Use a portable air cleaner to reduce indoor air pollution. Make sure it is sized for the room and that it does not make ozone, which is a harmful air pollutant. Portable air cleaners can be used along with efficient central air systems with high-efficiency filters to further reduce indoor particles.
  • Create a “clean room” in your home. Choose a room with no fireplace and as few windows and doors as possible, such as a bedroom. Use a HEPA non-ozone producing air cleaner in the room.
  • Long-term smoke events usually have periods when the air is better. When air quality improves, even temporarily, air out your home to reduce indoor air pollution.

How can I reduce smoke exposure outdoors?

  • Take it easier during smoky times to reduce how much smoke you inhale. If it looks or smells smoky outside, avoid strenuous activities such as mowing the lawn or going for a run.
  • Know your air quality. Smoke levels can change a lot during the day, so wait until air quality is better before you are active outdoors. Check airnow.gov for air quality forecasts and current air quality conditions. On AirNow.gov, you can also sign up to get email notifications, download an air quality app, or check current fire conditions.
  • Have enough food and medication on hand to last several days, if possible, so you don’t have to go out for supplies. If you must go out, avoid the smokiest times of day.
  • Reduce smoke in your vehicle by closing the windows and vents and running the air conditioner in “recirculate” mode. Slow down when you drive in smoky conditions.
  • Do not rely on dust masks or bandanas for protection from smoke. They do nothing to protect against smoke particles.
  • N-95 respirators may not be the best protection from smoke.
    • N-95 respirators are no substitute for being indoors. Not an option? Know this: N-95 respirators may not be helpful for all people and may be dangerous for certain people with lung or heart conditions.
    • Certified N-95s are not available for children. Children should not wear these masks; they do not fit properly and can impede breathing.
    • If you choose to wear an N-95 respirator, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for properly fitting an N-95 respirator.
    • Wearing an ill-fitted respirator can lead to a false sense of security and to over exertion.
    • Taking a respirator on and off can cause fine particulate matter to build up in the respirator which the wearer will breathe when it is put back on the face.
    • Use a new respirator. Old or reused N-95 respirators are not effective.
    • Masks, even when worn properly, can become uncomfortable and hot.
    • If an N-95 makes you feel better, wear it. If you feel worse, don't! N-95s are not meant for everyone.

What is the Air Quality Index (AQI)?

The AQI is a numeric, color-coded index for reporting daily air quality. It indicates how clean or polluted air is and what associated health effects may be of concern. The AQI focuses on health effects that may be experienced within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the federal Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone; particle pollution (also known as particulate matter); carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. For each of these pollutants, the EPA has established national air quality standards to protect public health.

A green or "good" AQI is 0 to 50. Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.

A yellow or “moderate” AQI is 51 to 100. Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people. For example, people who are unusually sensitive to ozone may experience respiratory symptoms.

An orange or “unhealthy for sensitive groups” AQI is 101 to 150. Although the general public is not likely to be affected at this AQI range, people with lung disease, older adults, and children are at a greater risk from exposure to ozone, whereas persons with heart and lung disease, older adults, and children are at greater risk from the presence of particles in the air.

A red or “unhealthy” AQI is 151 to 200. Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects.

A purple or “very unhealthy” AQI is 201 to 300. This would trigger a health alert, signifying that everyone may experience more serious health effects.

A maroon or “hazardous” AQI is greater than 300. This would trigger a health warning of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.

For more information on AQI and its impacts on health, visit the Bay Area Air Quality Management District website or the EPA’s AirNow.gov website.

Where can AQI readings be found for a particular area?

Visit baaqmd.gov for the current AQI in the Bay Area, or the EPA’s AirNow.gov website to enter a zip code for real-time air quality information. (Sources: BAAQMD, EPA)

Additional Resources