Wildfires also known as forest fires are huge blazes often caused by natural causes such as volcanic eruption, lightning, and dry climate. They could also be caused by human involvement. That’s why it’s important to learn how to protect yourself from wildfire smoke. Studies suggest that over 100,000 wildland fires destroy approximately 2 million hectares of land annually in the US.
Formation of Forest Fires
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The formation of wildfires is facilitated by three conditions which are: a source of heat, oxygen, and fuel. Firefighters define them as the fire triangle. The source of heat flares up the wildfire, while fuel is a flammable component encircling a fire such as grass, trees, homes, or brushes.
The greater the fuel load in a specific area, the more acute the fire is likely to be. Air provides the oxygen that fire requires to facilitate the burning process. Heat sources expedite the wildfire and increase the fuel temperatures causing it to ignite. Hot winds, burning campfires, cigarettes, the sun, or even lightning can be sources of enough heat to flare up a wildfire.
While human beings are said to be responsible for starting four out of every five wildfires, they can also occur due to natural causes. For instance, drought and dry weather dries up green vegetation, converting it to flammable fuel, warm temperatures can stimulate combustion while strong winds escalate fire across the land fast.
In the presence of these factors, what remains is a slight spark to ignite a huge blaze which may not only destroy huge acres of land, but firefighters may struggle to control it for weeks. Wildfires can occur in any part of the world even though they are quite common in the Western part of the US where drought, heat, and recurrent thunderstorms create the ideal wildfire conditions.
Controlling or Stopping Wildfires
Firefighters battle wildfires by stripping them of either one or more of the fire triangle components. Some of the conventional methods include sprinkling fire retardants and water drenching to eradicate existent fires and clearing vegetation to form firebreaks in a bid to deny the fire fuel.
Firefighters may also start intentional fires, a process referred to as controlled burning. Stipulated upon fires eradicate undergrowth, ground litter, and brush from the land to deny the wildfire of fuel. As much as wildfires cause destruction and are harmful to humans, they are critical for nature. For instance, the process of burning decaying or dead matter restores nutrients to the soil.
Wildfires can eliminate harmful insects and disease-causing plants from the environment hence acting as an environmental disinfectant. When wildfires burn across brushy undergrowth and thick canopies, they create a way to allow sunlight to penetrate through the forest floor hence stimulating the growth of a new creation of seedlings.
Wildfire season occurs annually and can have a tremendous impact on human beings. Do you live in a wildfire-prone area? Knowing how well to remain safe while ensuring that your lungs are protected from the ash and smoke is critical. Here are various ways to help you and your family remains safe in the event of a wildfire near you.
Observe Local Smoke Alerts
Keeping an eye on your local news for any smoke alerts and announcements on the quality of air within your locality can help you stay safe. Whether your property is close or far away from the fire, smoke is can easily blow towards your direction causing havoc to the quality of your local air. There are numerous websites available where you can get your local air quality updates regularly.
Watch out for Particles in the Air
Smoke comes with particles. Airborne particles are derived from the surrounding environment and wood as it burns in the wildfire. Often, many people opine that the absence of smoke guarantees them safety which is far from the truth since the naked eye can only spot a huge cluster of smoke particles.
Some of the dispersed particles cannot be seen with the naked eye. Further, you can easily breathe in microscopic particles in your body organs hence triggering complications. Wildfires are responsible for a wide variety of health-related problems and experts recommend that if you suspect a wildfire within your locality, the best idea is to stay indoors and close your windows to ensure that no one in your family inhales the contaminants.
Adopt Air Purifiers to Enhance the Quality of your Indoor air
If you experience poor quality air outside, you should ensure that the quality of your indoor air is clean. Purchase an air purifier depending on the size of your room and your expectations. Circulate it in your frequently used rooms to guarantee maximum air purification.
Air purifiers are specially designed to eliminate harmful particles such as smoke components and pollutants such as allergens and dust from the air within your space. Many of the available air purifiers are up to 99.97% effective when it comes to enhancing the quality of air in your surroundings. Air purifiers filter the air in your surroundings, traps harmful particles, and then releases purified air back into your space ensuring that you breathe fresh air.
Adopt an Air Conditioner for Circulation of Air
Air conditioners are not designed to purify air; neither do they come with air filtering characteristics. Air conditioners, however, trap various components such as dust with the help of a filter to prevent them from penetrating through the system and causing it damage. With the help of an air conditioner, you can eradicate smoke particles from your home in the event of a wildfire.
Ensure that your air conditioner filters are clean in order to maximize their ability to sufficiently eliminate smoke particles from the air. However, air conditioners are less effective when compared to air purifiers. Fortunately, there is a wide variety of effective purifiers for you even when you are on a budget.
A portable or air purifier is not only cheaper but its running costs are less expensive. These can be the ideal alternative to keep the air in your home clean. Portable and window air conditioners come with an air filter and can play a huge role in minimizing the number of smoke particles present in your home.
Purchase a Particle Respirator Mask
Many people opine that a surgical or paper mask is sufficiently effective to prevent you from inhaling smoke. However, they are wrong because the aforementioned items can’t filter harmful particles from the air. If you live in a wildfire smoke prone area, you may want to spend lots of time indoors. Having a particle respirator mask in this scenario can be a perfect idea. The gadget is specially designed to fit on your face and is capable of filtering out approximately 95% of harmful particles as tiny as 0.003 microns.
Keep Your Windows and Doors Closed
While you may want to open your doors and windows to let in fresh air, doing so is not recommended as it can minimize the quality of the air within your indoor space, especially if the wildfire is happening within 100 miles from your home. To maximize your safety, ensure your home is airtight. Minimize the number of times your doors are opened and closed. You may want to purchase an air purifier to enhance the quality of the air inside your home.
Cleanup Your Home Thoroughly
In the event, your home is affected directly by a wildfire, conduct thorough cleaning in your home once the wildfire has been contained. Still, you need to exercise caution by wearing protective clothing such as respirators, and masks to avoid inhaling harmful airborne particles.
Beware of Your Escape Route
While you may not want to envision a wildfire in your locality, you should have prior preparations in place. Having an escape route and plan comes in handy in the event of a wildfire. Begin by establishing information about insurance, shelter, or available transportation options from the emergency services department in your area.
Have a laid down plan to move your pets if you have them. You can even inquire from the vet’s office within your locality for accommodation options to temporarily keep your pets before figuring out your next step.
Have an Emergency Kit
An emergency kit can come in handy in the event of a wildfire. This can include: sufficient water and food to last you at least three days. Have other items such as toiletries, first aid supplies, flashlights, copies of essential paperwork, and batteries. If you live in an area prone to frequent wildfires, have a respirator in place to enhance the health of your lungs.
Move Away from the Area
Leaving the wildfire infested area is the perfect way of protecting yourself from smoke inhalation. Remember, smoke can navigate through your area from hundreds of miles away. Moving away temporarily can enhance the quality of the air both in your indoors and outdoors. While you are away, keep an eye on the local news for updates on the air quality. You can always return to your home once the situation improves.
Who is at Risk?
The above tips can help you protect both yourself and your loved ones from the risk of inhaling smoke. Having a respirator mask, an air purifier, an emergency kit, and an escape plan in place comes in handy to reduce the effects of wildfires and smoke inhalation. However, prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke can have adverse side effects on the people involved. There are specific people who are at increased risk of wildfire as seen below.
The elderly people – the older generation of people are at an increased risk of getting complications as a result of inhaling smoke. They are likely to experience lung and heart problems which mean that all measures should be put in place to protect them in the event of a wildfire.
People with lung or heart-related complications and lung or cardiovascular problems such as; angina, congestive heart failure, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or ischemic heart illness falls in the high-risk classification.
People living with diabetes are likely to suffer from respiratory or heart complications. Inhaling smoke can escalate the condition.
Young children – inhaling smoke can have adverse health effects on young children, especially because their younger respiratory system is still developing. Since their bodies are tinier, children inhale more air compared to human beings. What’s more, they love spending most of their time outdoors and this can expose them to more risk in the event of a wildfire.
Pregnant women – pregnant women are at high risk in the event of smoke inhalation. The resulting complications can affect both the baby and mother which is why having an air purifier in your baby’s room is a great idea to ensure that your baby inhales clean air.
How do Wildfires Affect Human Health?
The effects of smoke inhalation are determined by the longevity of exposure, how far you are from the concentration of the smoke, and the amount of smoke you’ve already inhaled. These conditions can also have an impact on the condition of your overall health. While some people will experience the immediate effects of smoke inhalation, others will notice them after many days. Smoke inhalation symptoms can last between a few hours to weeks. Early smoke inhalation symptoms include:
- Itchy throat
- Burning or stinging feeling in your eyes
- Nausea as a result of the smoke smell
Here are symptoms to look out for if you’ve been exposed to smoke for prolonged periods of time.
- Severe headaches
- Slight changes in lung capacity and function
- Changes in your level of alertness
The hardest affected parts of your body as a result of smoke inhalation are your respiratory tract and lungs. Smoke particles are dangerous and if medical attention if not taken to address the above-mentioned symptoms, they may destroy the cells found in the lungs which may jeopardize the immune system. You may fall sick often and experience respiratory related complications following prolonged smoke inhalation or exposure to smoke infested conditions.
When to See Your Doctor
Your symptoms should dictate when you should see your medical practitioner. However, there are various alarming symptoms you should look out for. For instance, a persistent cough that will not disappear even after medication, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, tightness and pain in the chest, and unusual body weakness. If you experience these symptoms, consult your doctor without fail to determine the problem. It could be nothing serious, but taking early precautionary measures is better than being sorry.
Inhalation of smoke presents varying side effects to different people. As seen above, some people may be at a higher risk of getting health-related complications than others. If you are experiencing symptoms which you associate with smoke inhalation, watch out for your health closely and seek medical assistance if the condition gets worse.
Wildfires especially those that occur as a result of human contribution can be prevented. Meteorologists can’t forecast naturally occurring wildfires yet which means that if you live in a wildfire-prone area, you may want to be prepared always. The following tips should help you understand what measures to take in the event of a wildfire and what you can do to prevent one.
Call the fire department within your locality, 911, or even the park service in the event of sudden fires.
Where possible, don’t leave a fire unattended. You can put it out by drenching it with water and ensuring the ashes are cold before you leave especially when you are out camping. Further, exercise caution when using heaters, stoves, and fueling lanterns while on camp. Avoid refueling your gadgets before they have cooled off, keep fuel away from fire and appliances, and do not pour flammable liquid.
Adhere to local regulations when burning your waste and don’t burn waste during windy conditions. Always have water, a shovel, and a fire retardant in place to contain a possible fire.
Avoid disposing of matches, smoking materials, and matches in park grounds or from moving vehicles. Never dispose of cigarettes before putting them off.
Tips to Facilitate Evacuation
- Adhere to evacuation alerts as soon as possible
- Wear protective footwear and clothing to safeguard yourself from flying ashes and fire sparks
- If you live in a wildfire-prone area, make sure you are conversant with the evacuation route. Carry your emergency kit with you.
- Close all doors, vents, and windows to keep debris at bay
- Prior to leaving, remove all combustibles such as yard waste, firewood, fuel cans, and barbecue grills from your yard. If you can’t identify any water body, lie down low and try as much as possible to cover yourself with a blanket or soil while the fireball passes.
- If you are caught up in the midst of the fire, avoid trying to overrun it. Rather, identify a pool of water and jump in.
- To discourage fire from spreading in your home, fill tubs, pools, and garbage cans with water
- Turn off fuel oil supplies, propane, and natural gas
- Try to breathe the air closest to the ground as much as possible through a moist cloth. This prevents you from inhaling smoke and keeps your lungs healthy.
First Aid Smoke Inhalation Tips
Inhaling smoke can have a huge impact on the people closest to the wildfire. Prolonged exposure to smoke can cause severe respiratory and other health complications. In severe cases, it can even cause death. Experts opine that smoke inhalation is what commonly causes death in the event of a fire outbreak.
Prolonged wildfires increase the risk of smoke exposure and escalate the problems that occur as a result of smoke inhalation. Understanding the first steps to take if someone in your home suffers the effects of smoke inhalation is important. Remember, administering first aid can play a vital role in saving the victim’s life. Below are some of the common symptoms you should look out for.
- Frequent and persistent coughing
- Breathing difficulties
- A smoke smelling breath
- irritated, red, and watery eyes
- Black residue in the mouth and nose
- Itchy and seemingly irritated skin
Early identification of these symptoms in victims or even yourself plays a big role in ensuring that you get immediate attention to control the situation.
What to do in if Smoke Inhalation is detected
If you notice severe smoke inhalation symptoms you should:
Call Emergency Services for Assistance
Dial 911 from your phone immediately. While the wildfire may prevent emergency services from accessing your area, the attendant can give you sufficient tips to help you administer first aid on the victim before they arrive.
Move Away from the Smoke
If the quality of air indoors safer compared to the outdoors, take the victim inside. If it’s not safe, consider evacuating them to a safer place.
If the victim has stopped breathing, administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation and report the same to emergency services immediately.
Have the victim tell you what they are feeling if they are still conscious. If they are slipping in and out of consciousness, monitor their breathing pattern and their airways for any black residue. Perform regular pulse checks before help arrives.
If available, use your respirator kit to supply the victim with fresh oxygen.
Watch out for any changes in victim behavior. Remember, smoke inhalation can result in shock. Ensure they maintain a semi-seated position to maximize their intake of clean air. Exposure to clean air can help the victim recover some energy even though they may still appear irritable and disoriented.
Watch out for Injuries
Inspect the patient’s body for any signs of injuries such as bleeding wounds or broken limbs especially if the victim lost consciousness and fell down following smoke inhalation. If there are any wounds, clean them up and minimize movement as much as possible if the victim has broken bones.
Smoke inhalation can have diverse effects on the brain and other body organs. Sometimes it can cause behavioral changes in victims in the long run. Always seek professional medical help even after recovering from first aid procedures.