Residents of the Upper Midwest know what to do during tornadoes (head to the basement) or lightning (any building or vehicle offers protection), as well as blizzards, floods and arctic slaps, but protecting ourselves from wildfire smoke? That's something Californians have to deal with, not Minnesotans or Wisconsinites, right?
Everything is connected, and a warming world is creating a longer wildfire season across western North America. We just happen to be downwind.
Smoke in May - what's up with that? It's a very early start to wildfire season, but recent record heat across southern Canada, coupled with gusty winds and low humidity dried out brush, lightning helping to ignite hundreds of fires upwind, over Alberta and Saskatchewan, and much of that smoke has been streaming into the Upper Midwest by prevailing jet stream winds. Occasionally, a cold frontal passage or rain will bring the smoke down to ground-level and we experience unhealthy air with sore throats, coughing fits, watery eyes and sleepless nights. What steps can I take to lower my risk?
Step one is keeping an eye on air quality. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has a website with continuously updated readings, so you can see current conditions and an air quality forecast for the next 2 days. That's a good place to start.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) breathing in smoke can have immediate health effects, including:
- Trouble breathing normally
- Stinging eyes
- A scratchy throat
- Runny nose
- Irritated sinuses
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- An asthma attack
- Fast heartbeat
Older adults, pregnant women, children, and people with preexisting respiratory and heart conditions may be more likely to get sick if they breathe in wildfire smoke.
Limit Outdoor Time During Poor Air Quality Days
Common sense goes a long way: if visibility is poor and smoke is an issue, limit your own time, and your kid's time spent outdoors. According to CDC: "Look out for any asthma symptoms. Contact your healthcare provider if you have trouble breathing, shortness of breath, a cough that won’t stop, or other symptoms that do not go away."
They also advise not not add to indoor pollution. When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns, such as candles and fireplaces. Don't vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home.
Quality N95 Masks Provide Some Protection
Those leftover masks from the pandemic may help relieve some of the symptoms of thick wildfire smoke. According to CDC: "An “N95” mask, properly worn, will offer some protection."
People with asthma, COPD and other respiratory challenges are at risk, and if you have a heart condition you should monitor symptoms on the worst wildfire days. With any luck rain and firefighter efforts will extinguish those fires over western Canada, but at the rate we're going, this may be a partly-smoky summer across the Northland.
Hiding in my mamma's basement isn't an option, but on days when smoke looks like thick fog outside your window, it's best to stay indoors and take it extra-extra easy out there.
This too shall pass...