The Inertia Gear Editor
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orange skies in san francisco 2020

Wildfire smoke caused scarily orange skies in San Francisco around this time last year. Photo: Thom Milkovic//Unsplash.


The Inertia

Fall, and September especially, used to be the best time of year where I live in the Bay Area. The mid-summer fog is gone, the water is still warm and the first winter swells are starting to roll through. But now, fall means another season of record-breaking fires, and days of nervously checking the air quality.

Wildfire Season is a new and terrifying occurrence that seems set to return, year after year, until we achieve some global cooling instead of global warming, or everything flammable gets burned, whichever comes first. It’s a pretty scary new reality to be living in, but there are plenty of things that we can be doing to adapt to our surroundings during these times. Here are some best practices I’ve learned that can go a long ways when dealing with wildfire smoke. For more, check out the EPA’s guide to Wildfires and Indoor Air Quality.

purpleair screenshot south lake tahoe

PurpleAir maps of the South Lake Tahoe region during the height of the Caldor Fire showed AQI numbers as high as 500, dangerous conditions for anyone. Photo: PurpleAir Screenshot

Stay Up-To-Date With Resources Like PurpleAir

I know that wildfire season is in full swing when PurpleAir appears in my suggested searches after a long few months of no activity. PurpleAir is a crowd-sourced website and system of self-installed sensors. People purchase PurpleAir’s sensors and install them nearby, and then the live air quality data is streamed to the website where anyone can see it. The website is completely free to use, and can help give you an idea of how high to set that air filter.

Get An Air Filter

Seriously. And better to do so now than in the mad rush to the hardware store when the air quality gets really bad. This little guy will be chugging away in my bedroom from now until the first rains of winter start coming down. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you spend a whole bunch of time literally just breathing in that room, so it’s probably a good idea to have the air as clean as possible. More powerful air filters can even clean the air inside an entire house, and keep it clean as long as smoke isn’t sneaking in anywhere.

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Keep Smoke Out

That air filter isn’t going to be doing much good if smokier air is constantly seeping in through the cracks around windows and doors, or if you’ve got the windows wide open. You can use weather stripping to seal off leaky doors and windows. Another good idea is to replace the filters in your HVAC system, but if you’re going to turn on the air conditioner or ventilation, make sure you have the option to turn off the outside air intake so you’re not introducing smokey air into your home.

n95 mask

Two straps that go around the back of your head are crucial for creating a good seal to protect you from wildfire smoke. Photo: Jonathan J Castellon via Unsplash.

Switch to N95 Masks

While a cloth mask might be sufficient for COVID-19, when it comes to smoke particles in the air around us, it’s not going to do the trick. Surgical, or medical, masks do some work to filter particles out of the air that we breathe, but your best bet is going to be an N95. According to this infographic from the California Department of Public Health, your mask should have two straps that go around the head, and make a functioning seal between your face and the mask.

orange smokey skies above ocean beach

No wind led to orange, smokey skies for the Bay Area last fall, but also clean conditions at Ocean Beach, San Francisco. More than a few surfers didn’t let the smoke stop them. Photo: Will Sileo

Above All, Take Care Of Your Mental Health

Like many of you, I’m an anxious person. And now more than ever we live in an anxiety inducing world with technology, COVID-19 and more changing the basic ways that we interact with others. Bad air quality can have long-term as well as immediate effects on one’s health, but so can stress. If you’re nervously checking PurpleAir every morning when you wake up, and are scared to leave the house when the smoke isn’t that bad, maybe give yourself a bit of a break. Take a walk. Go for a surf. We’re only human after all.

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