San Francisco, CA

3 Ways to Fight the Bay Area's Deadly Wildfire Smoke

Thomas Smith

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Last week, it rolled in for the first time this season. Wildfire smoke--mainly from the wildly destructive Dixie Fire in Northern California--blanketed parts of the East Bay and South Bay. Although San Francisco itself was largely spared, air quality degraded quickly in East Bay cities including Lafayette and Pleasant Hill, often reaching unhealthy levels.

Make no mistake--this may have been the first time in the 2021 season that smoke befouled the Bay Area’s air, but it won’t be the last. This fire season is expected to be especially intense, and more days with bad air are almost certainly ahead.

Wildfire smoke isn’t just a nuisance--Stanford research indicates that it can be deadly. Here are 3 ways to protect yourself this fire season.

Get a Purifier, and Designate a Clean Room

You can’t remove smoke from the air outside. But you can make your own home--or at least one room within it--a sanctuary of relatively clean air even when smoke drifts into your area.

The best way to do this is to purchase an air purifier. Ideally, you should get a HEPA purifier. HEPA filters remove more than 99% of the small particulates which make wildfire smoke deadly. If you can’t find or afford a HEPA filter, you can improvise your own filter using a box fan and a furnace filter with a high MERV rating.

In choosing a purifier, make sure that your purifier is properly sized for your home. Look at the manufacturer's rated room size, and the purifier’s CADR rating. The room size should match the size of your home, and you should choose a model with the highest possible CADR rating, which translates to the highest possible airflow and cleaning power.

If your home is on the larger size, you may not be able to purify your whole space. If that’s the case, your best move is to designate one “clean room” within your home, and make the air in that room as pristine as possible. Since you spend a lot of your day sleeping, designating a bedroom as your clean room is often a good bed.

Get a purifier which is properly sized for your clean room, and run it on full blast. Make sure any windows in your clean room are properly sealed, and use tape or weather stripping to seal them if they’re not. You can place a towel at the bottom of the room’s door to keep air from leaking underneath. Avoid burning candles in your clean room, or doing anything else which might add to pollution in the air.

Spend as much time in yoru clean room as you can. Bring your laptop in and work there if you’re working remotely. Even if you can’t control the air outdoors--and even if you can’t purify your whole house--you can at least have one space with clean air, where you can retreat when smoke gets bad.

Wear an N95 Mask

Everyone is wearing masks to protect against Covid-19. Those same masks should protect against wildfire smoke too, right?

Not necessarily. Cloth masks may provide protection from virus particles, but they’re unlikely to protect against smoke, according to several experts interviewed by Healthline. The masks block aerosols from your mouth relatively well, but they don’t provide a tight enough seal to protect against fine particulates.

One option does work against smoke, though--the N95 or KN95 mask. Early in the pandemic, these were restricted to health care workers only. Today, though, they’re much easier to find. Stock up now before smoke arrives, and wear an N95 or KN95 if you need to go outside in smoky conditions.

Use Your Car

One surprising solution to wildfire smoke? Go for a drive--or at least drive to a safe, outdoor spot and spend some time in your car. Cars are small, enclosed spaces, and most models have a cabin air filter which is designed to remove allergens and dust from the cabin air.

The filters aren’t as effective as a HEPA purifier, but in many cases, they do a good job of dropping smoke levels in your car quite effectively. According to 3M, most cars can reduce interior pollution levels up to 34%. If you own a Tesla or another car with advanced filtration, the filter can likely do even better.

I tested this my own car by driving around while the Air Quality Index (AQI) outdoors had reached 180, an unhealthy level. I used a handheld PM2.5 meter to measure the air quality inside my Honda Odyssey minivan. Within about 10 minutes, the AQI had dropped to 50. That’s still borderline polluted, but much better than the air outside.

To take advantage of your car’s cleaning power, keep the doors closed and set your car’s AC to its “recirculate” mode. Keep windows up and close any outside vents. As always, remember never to operate a vehicle in a closed garage or other enclosed space, due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Using your car as a pollution sanctuary might be ironic, since gas powered cars release damaging emissions. But if you need a place to retreat from smoke, consider a road trip, or simply sitting in your car in a pretty spot and reading a book or getting some work done.

As wildfire smoke intensifies during this fire season, now’s the time to prepare. Stock up on masks, consider a purifier, and get your cabin filter changed today, so you’re ready the next time smoke strikes.

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Thomas Smith is an award winning entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Gado Images. Thomas writes, speaks and consults about artificial intelligence, privacy, food, photography, tech, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As a professional photographer, Thomas' photographic work regularly appears in publications worldwide. Pitches/news tips: tom@gadoimages.com

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