Protection from Wildfire Smoke by Alison Sims, M.D.

In the fall and winter of 2017, California experienced record-breaking heat and wind conditions resulting in record-breaking wildfires. The largest wildfire in California history is the Thomas Fire which destroyed over 281,620 acres and more than 1000 structures, and claimed one life. The most destructive wildfire in California history is the Tubbs Fire which was in Sonoma and ended October 31st of 2017; it destroyed 5,643 structures, resulted in 22 fatalities, and affected tens of thousands of lives.

In our clinics, we have seen an increase in pulmonary, sinus and eye complaints, especially from those people fleeing the areas affected by the wildfires, but also from locals with symptoms and illnesses resulting from the dry and strong Santa Ana winds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( has recommendations to minimize your risk of these injuries and illnesses and are summarized here:

Extra care is to be taken by the elderly, children and those with chronic heart or lung diseases. It may be difficult to curtail children’s activities outdoors, but they are the most vulnerable as their lungs are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.

To be sure you are in the know, consult the national website for air quality and/or the South Coast Air Quality Management District website for hourly updates of local Orange County Air Quality Index reports. You can even sign up for E-Mail Air Alerts from the latter site. Of course, some fires may be smelled before they are on the internet maps, as in the Riverdale Fire of Orange County on Dec 4-5, 2017. In that case, if you smell smoke, be sure to take care to go indoors immediately.

Indoor air must be kept as clean as possible by closing all the windows, doors, and the fireplace flu. If you have air conditioning it can help, but you must turn off the fresh air intake function and keep the filter clean. Avoid smoking, lighting candles, using a gas fireplace or stove, and vacuuming (it kicks up the dust). If these measures do not create a smoke free zone at home, seek shelter in a designated evacuation center or move to another area away from the smoke.

Finally, the surgical paper masks we use to minimize transmission of illnesses such as influenza are NOT effective against the particulates and gases of smoke inhalation. Do not go out in a smoky area or try to exercise outdoors in poor air quality conditions with a simple paper mask. You are not protected, and you are harming your eyes and respiratory system. If you must go out, airtight goggles of any kind are protective for the eyes, and N95 or N100 respirator masks (found at any hardware store) have finer filters with a tight seal on the face for filtering particulates, but they do not filter out gases.

Living in California, wildfires and Santa Ana winds are a part of our lives. If you have any signs or symptoms of respiratory or eye problems, please see a doctor for evaluation and medical care.


The information provided is for general interest only and should not be misconstrued as a diagnosis, prognosis or treatment recommendation. This information does not in any way constitute the practice of medicine, or any other health care profession. Readers are directed to consult their health care provider regarding their specific health situation. Marque Medical is not liable for any action taken by a reader based upon this information.

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