Updated September 14, 2020
Summer and fall air quality in Spokane can often be impacted by regional wildfires. This results in air pollution that is sometimes unhealthy for all. During times of poor air quality, Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) and Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency (Spokane Clean Air) urge residents to understand the health risks associated with wildfire smoke and take precautions to protect their health.
Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles (called PM2.5) from burning vegetation, building materials and other materials. Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick, even someone who is healthy, if there is enough smoke in the air. Breathing in smoke can have immediate health effects, including the following:
Trouble breathing normally
A scratchy throat
Wheezing and shortness of breath
An asthma attack
If you have questions about the health effects of wildfire smoke, call the Washington Poison Center (WPC) at 800.222.1222.
While inhaling smoke isn't good for anyone, some people are especially sensitive and more likely to experience health problems related to wildfire smoke including the following:
People with existing health conditions such as the following are also more likely to experience health effects:
Respiratory symptoms such as dry cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing are common symptoms of both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19. See how the symptoms compare below. If you are experiencing severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or chest pain, get medical attention as soon as possible by calling 911 or calling ahead to the nearest emergency medical facility. If you have a fever, cough or shortness of breath, proceed as if you may have COVID-19, protect others by staying home and call your healthcare provider to discuss COVID-19 testing and other possible reasons for your illness.
Exacerbation of lung, heart and circulatory conditions***
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Congestion or runny nose****
New loss of taste or smell
Less common: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke
Here are some steps you can take to limit exposure to wildfire smoke.
Increase HVAC Filtration
You can improve the air quality in your home by reducing the fine particles (PM2.5) coming into your home during smoke events. Your home’s HVAC system is the best way to reduce fine particles from wildfire smoke throughout your home, rather than in a single room. Increase the filtration in your home HVAC system to a MERV rating 13 filter with the deepest pleat your system can accommodate to reduce fine particles. Close the air intake to keep wildfire smoke out. Make sure to consult your HVAC manual or consult with an HVAC professional before making improvements. Change the filter when dirty or indicated by manufacturer’s instructions.
Use a Portable Air Cleaner With a HEPA Filter
A portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter can reduce fine particles (PM2.5) from wildfire smoke in a single room. Select one that is rated for the size of room where you plan to use it. The rating is based on the square footage of the room and the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR). Consider the noise rating as well, as some can be quite loud. Choosing one rated for a larger size room and then running it at a lower setting can reduce the noise.
Do not use ozone generators, personal air purifiers, or electrostatic precipitators and ionizers that produce ozone, which is a respiratory irritant. Check that it has been certified to avoid ozone exposures through the California Certified Air Cleaning Devices portal. Place it in a room where you spend time, with the windows and doors closed. Change the filter when dirty or indicated by manufacturer’s instructions.
Use a DIY Box Fan Filter
DIY-ing a box fan filter can be a less expensive option to reduce fine particles (PM2.5) from wildfire smoke in a single room. When building your own box fan filter it is important to understand their limitations and the potential risks.
Select a standard box fan and a filter with a MERV 13 rating of the same dimensions. There are different designs to consider, such as those where the filter is attached by bungee cord, the filter is screwed on brackets, and two filters are attached to create a triangle shape. Place the constructed DIY box fan filter in a room, ideally a small room where you spend time, with the windows and doors closed. Keep it away from a window or wall so that the front or back are not blocked. Do not run unattended and monitor for overheating to reduce the risk of fire. Change the filter when dirty.
Learn how to make a DIY filter
Puget Sound Clean Air Agency DIY Air Filter (video)
Colville Tribes Box Fan Filter DIY Users Guide (video)
SRHD does not typically recommend face masks as the best option for members of the general public to reduce their exposure to wildfire smoke. It is better to stay indoors and keep indoor air clean.
During previous fire seasons, members of the general public who need to use a face mask for a limited period of time outside during a smoke event have been directed to use an N95 or other NIOSH respirator rated for fine particulates while also taking several necessary steps to ensure it is worn correctly to achieve a proper fit and seal. N95 respirators are not an option for everyone, as they are not recommended for children, not as effective with facial hair, and those with pre-existing conditions should first consult with a healthcare provider.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, N95 and other NIOSH-approved respirators are in short supply due to COVID-19 and they need to be reserved for those required to wear them for work.
Cloth face coverings generally do not provide much protection from breathing in wildfire smoke. However, it is important to continue to wear cloth face coverings to slow the spread of SARS-Cov-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) and reduce the risk of COVID-19. Learn more about face coverings.
Getting regular exercise is very important for your health. However, when exercising, your air intake increases. If you exercise when it's smoky out, you will inhale more polluted air. If you are sensitive to smoke, consider limiting your activities when the air quality is in the Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups category. Please note that people with asthma or lung and heart conditions may be more sensitive to poor air quality, so it may be best to reduce indoor and outdoor activities when air quality is in the Moderate category.
Populations at increased risk for severe respiratory problems from wildfire smoke include children and adolescents, especially when active. Children under the age of six are most at risk for experiencing severe respiratory problems from wildfire smoke. When air quality conditions deteriorate into "unhealthy" ranges, the best thing to do is limit outdoor exposure.
If there are concerns about indoor air quality in the workplace, check with your employer about keeping the air inside as clean as possible. The windows and doors should be kept closed. The building air conditioner should be used with the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside
Visit L&I’s website to learn more.
When it’s smoky out and outdoor air quality is considered unhealthy or hazardous, it’s important to minimize health risks related to exposure to smoky conditions. Consider the following best practices from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I):
Visit L&I’s website to learn more.
You may ask to voluntarily wear a non-NIOSH approved dust mask at work, such as a KN95 or hobby mask, when smoke from wildfires enters the work environment. Please keep in mind that using NIOSH-approved N95s is temporarily discouraged due to the current shortage and need to reserve existing limited supplies for workers exposed to coronavirus in high-risk occupations like healthcare.
Your employer may also permit you to voluntarily use of other types of NIOSH-approved respirators, such as half-facepiece elastomeric respirators with HEPA cartridges, but any such use would need to comply with medical evaluations and other applicable requirements in the Respirators rule, Chapter 296-842 WAC.
Visit L&I’s website to learn more.
Spokane Regional Health District Guidance for Air Pollution and School Activities/Outdoor Sport Events
Spokane Regional Clean Air Is the Air Safe Infographic
Washington State Department of Health Smoke from Wildfires Toolkit
Washington State Department of Health Smoke from Fires
Washington State Department of Health Wildfires
Washington State Department of Health Recommendations for Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19 During the 2020 Wildfire Season
Washington State Department of Labor & Industries Wildfire Smoke and Washington Workers
Washington State Department of Labor & Industries Protecting workers from wildfire smoke exposure: best practices
United States Department of Agriculture Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19 FAQ
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wildfires
United States Environmental Protection Agency Smoke-Ready Toolbox for Wildfires
United States Environmental Protection Agency Indoor Air and Coronavirus (COVID-19)