Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

House Call: Planning ahead can help you cope with wildfires and smoke

Electric Lime scooter riders move along the Centennial Trail through the smoky wildfire air near Kendall Yards on Aug. 2, 2021.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Dr. David Ward The Spokesman-Review

Summer is my favorite season here in Spokane with our long days and warm nights. But it also carries the distressing threat of serious wildfires. Wildfire danger, exposure to wildfire smoke and periods where we need to stay indoors and cope with hazardous air has unfortunately become part of life in the Inland Northwest.

Both the threat of wildfire destruction and of hazardous air quality seriously impact our lives here, physically and psychologically. Wildfire smoke contains small particles of pollution that can penetrate deep into the lungs, so it is more dangerous than other smoke from other causes.

As periods of hazardous air quality often come in short doses, we can tend to ignore or minimize the threats and still get out there to paddleboard, swim or hike, hoping it will be OK. But wildfire smoke is actually lowering life expectancy in Spokane and other highly impacted areas by as much as 2.4 years compared to Washington as a whole, according to a study by the Washington Department of Ecology.

These annual smoke events and fires still catch many of us off guard as we’re enjoying the summer, leaving us to scramble for an alternative plan to being outdoors and to be safe. Adding to a heightened sense of not having control, the devastating Medical Lake fire last year jumped the freeway several times, seeming to move with no rhyme or reason (at least to a person like me).

Being prepared and making a wildfire safety plan can help restore that sense of control and minimize the health and mental health impacts that wildfire season brings. We can also strengthen our community’s health and resilience by planning and caring for those that may need help coping with wildfire events, including children, older adults and lower income people who might not have air conditioning or air filters.

If you see a forecast for smoke, adapt your plans to protect your lungs and your children’s lungs and stay safe. Here are a few tips:

• Learn to watch for when the Air Quality Index gets in the red zone (151-200). Being outdoors in AQI’s from 201-300 is considered very unhealthy for everyone and above 300 is considered hazardous.

• Stay indoors as much as possible when the air is hazardous, with vents and windows closed, and put up your car windows when driving. Don’t exercise outside in hazardous air. Even if you don’t notice symptoms, the air particulates can damage your lungs. If you work outdoors, avoid vigorous outdoor activities.

• Protect your indoor air with a portable HEPA air filter in at least one room in your home. You can also find directions online for an effective and inexpensive air filter made with a box fan and a heater filter. Change the air filter on your furnace before and after smoke season.

• Take precautions when you clean up after a smoke event. Use a damp mop or rags. Wildfire smoke particulates fall to the ground and when you vacuum or clean, it kicks that back up into the air, even with a HEPA filter vacuum, although that does improve the situation.

If you have asthma, COPD or other lung diseases, chronic heart disease, or diabetes, or are sensitive to wildfire smoke, plan for special precautions.

• If you have lung disease, consult with your doctor about a N-95 or N-100 mask to filter out the damaging fine particles. You should definitely stay inside during these conditions.

• If you cope with asthma, have your rescue inhaler ready. Your rescue inhaler needs to be with you when you have symptoms, so make sure you have your prescription filled and bring it along.

• Protect kids by keeping them indoors, as their lungs are still developing and they are more susceptible to smoke.

• Consider leaving the area during a prolonged smoke event if you can do so if you or a loved one is in a sensitive group.

Make a safety plan

In our area, threats to homes, property and land from wildfires couldn’t be clearer after last year’s fires. This includes how quickly and unpredictably a wildfire can move, not leaving a lot of time for reaction. Having a wildfire safety plan ahead of time can help you leave home quickly and safely if you need to.

• Set up an evacuation plan including routes, how to stay connected with family and friends and understanding the key steps for a safe fire evacuation.

• Have an emergency kit, including knowing what medicines you need to take if you must evacuate and essential items like glasses and hearing aids.

• Work with your community to plan to care for others. Older parents, neighbors and others may need help making their own wildfire and wildfire smoke safety plans.

Wildfires take a toll on mental health, too

It’s not only our eyes and lungs that are affected. Wildfire destruction, the threat of wildfires and hazardous air quality events have a deep impact on our mental health. Fear and anxiety about losing your home or having friends or family injured or killed by wildfires carries a weight on mental health.

Wildfires can cause anxiety, stress and depression and cause or worsen mental health conditions. They can keep us more socially isolated indoors, impact our sense of safety and disrupt sleep. A recent study found that prescriptions to treat depression and anxiety or stabilize mood increased in the six weeks after a wildfire event, particularly for people who evacuated or faced a threat of evacuation.

When there is a wildfire event in your community, take care of your mental health and resiliency by acknowledging the fear and stress, talking with friends or reaching out to your clinician.

As we come to expect a wildfire season, we can expect to need to set up air filters, restrict activity and outdoor time when possible, and have a wildfire safety plan. Planning and expecting to adapt can help us better protect our health, take away some of the fear and frustration and leave us free to enjoy the great Spokane summer when there are clear skies.

David Ward is a family physician at Kaiser Permanente in Spokane.