California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire season has left millions of people struggling to manage daily life while their cities and towns are shrouded by dangerously smoky air. Hundreds of California schools and businesses closed in the aftermath of the fires—the thinking being that the safest thing people can do when air quality is at a hazardous level is to stay home in rooms with filtered air.
Since the best thing to do is to stay indoors, the most important piece of protective gear for dealing with poor air quality after a wildfire is a home air purifier. We’ve just completed a new round of testing for a rewrite of our guide to the best air purifiers, and we also have some advice specifically on how to use an air purifier to clear your house of wildfire smoke.
If you do need to go outside, you’re probably considering a mask—namely, an N95 or P100 respirator. Municipalities have handed out such particulate respirators in the wake of wildfires, but at least one, Sacramento, has recently had second thoughts, as the masks may do more harm than good, especially if not worn properly (PDF). They may also give people a false sense of security, prompting them to venture outside when it’s far safer to stay in. The EPA’s “Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials” (PDF) provides more perspective on the benefits and limits of mask use.
In our guide to emergency preparedness supplies and emergency to-go bags, we recommend stocking 3M Aura 9211+ Particulate Respirator masks, which meet the EPA’s recommendations (PDF) for wildfire smoke (look for a NIOSH-approved N95-type or P100-type mask with two straps that secures below the chin). We think the Aura 9211+, a relatively comfortable and flexible N95 mask with a vent that allows you to exhale without fogging glasses, is the best choice of this type, and we like that it comes in packs of 10 since disposable masks like these are generally meant to be used for only about eight hours in dirty conditions.
Note that although there are particle respirator masks sized for kids and sold on Amazon, experts in the US, including at the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF), recommend against using them with children. Respirators obstruct airflow, so while they make the air safer to breathe, they also make it more difficult to breathe, which is riskier when it comes to kids than it is for adults. Although it’s likely difficult and inconvenient, the far better course is to keep children inside and away from hazardous air conditions as much as possible. Because children’s lungs are still growing, they’re especially vulnerable to wildfire smoke and ash, according to the EPA.
To check your local air quality, type your zip code into AirNow, an EPA resource that also provides a national map of current fires and a series of factsheets on preparing for and coping with the effects of wildfire. Your city may designate “clean air sites”—such as libraries, malls, or municipal buildings—when conditions are bad.
Our guides to the best emergency preparedness supplies and emergency to-go bags (also known as bug-out bags or ready bags) are aimed at helping people prepare for all manner of natural disasters. Please add any suggestions for improvement in the comments.
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