What To Do About Dust and Smoke From Fires

/ / Environmental Testing, Healthy Building Inspections & Testing

Dust and Smoke from Fires

Far more people have been impacted by dust and smoke than fires themselves. If you were directly impacted by fires you should read Cleaning After Fire. For others in the region who have been more directly impacted by dust and smoke from fires, please consider these tips to minimize health impacts from poor air quality.

EPA AirNow - Dust & Smoke from Fires

Who Is At Risk from Dust and Smoke?

Dust and smoke contain chemicals and minerals that are dangerous to every living organism, including our pets and livestock. Check the EPA’s AirNow site for day-to-day general updates in your area. Pay particular attention to air quality reports during a fire if you:

  • have a heart or lung disease, such as heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma.
  • are an older adult, which makes you more likely to have heart or lung disease than younger people.
  • care for children, including teenagers, because their respiratory systems are still developing, they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults, they’re more likely to be active outdoors, and they’re more likely to have asthma.
  • have diabetes, because you are more likely to have underlying cardiovascular disease.
  • are pregnant, because there could be potential health effects for both you and the developing fetus.

Inside: Dust and Smoke Getting in through Cracks, Gaps & Ventilation

When outside air quality is bad you should minimize infiltration into your building.

  • Keep windows and doors closed.
  • Air seal large cracks and gaps around doors, windows, electrical and plumbing penetrations, etc. It’s long been a mantra of the high-performance building industry to “build tight and ventilate right.” If you haven’t already, now is the time . In the short term you can simply use tape over larger areas, or plastic and tape over large openings.
  • Shut off outside air intakes for forced air systems. This may include temporarily covering crawlspace vents, incoming air ducts for HRVs/ERVs and central forced air systems. [NOTE: Contact your HVAC professional to make sure it’s okay to block these vents. Doing so – on some units – may increase pressure and burn out a fan.]
  • Some ventilation systems are designed to filter outside air. These systems may continue operating IF they do not noticeably worsen indoor air quality.
  • If possible, minimize use of exhaust fans such as those in bathrooms and over stoves, and don’t forget the clothes dryer creates a large “vacuum” which results in significant outside air infiltration. This recommendation must be weighed with other factors, and some may not find the trade off worthwhile.

Hayward Score – Breathing Well During Wildfires

Outside: Dust and Ash Collect on Horizontal Surfaces

To protect yourself be careful when cleaning; wear a N95 (or higher) rated dust mask, only lightly spray exterior surfaces, do not sweep or use blowers, etc.

See Cleaning After Fire for some suggestions.

Here are some highlights from HUDs “Rebuild Healthy Homes.”

  • SAFE: Protect yourself and others from injury during and after restoration. Injuries after the disaster is over- from chainsaw accidents, cuts, electrical shock, sprains and falls, burns and other accidents- are all too common. Damaged buildings or homes are dangerous. You can avoid injuries and deaths with the preparations and tips in this guide.
  • DRY: Dry or remove wet materials as quickly as possible. Dampness supports mold, bacteria, and pests, creating an unhealthy living space. That’s why it’s so important to properly dry the home out as soon as possible and keep it dry.
  • CLEAN: Remove debris, silt and grime with safe and effective cleaning methods. Damaged structures can have hidden dangers. Follow the methods in this guide to restore a truly clean and healthy home.

Cleaning Dust and Smoke from Fires May Contain Lead and Asbestos

Protecting Yourself from Dust and Smoke

So now that you’ve done the above, how do we protect ourselves from smoke and dust indoors?

  • When it’s really dusty or you’re doing dust generating work like cleaning, moving furniture or boxes, you should consider wearing a mask to reduce fine particle inhalation. A typical “dust mask” does little to reduce fine particulates. A N95 rated mask is suitable and recommended for most DIY situations. If you have a beard – you’ll need a full-face respirator which are considerably more expensive and effective.
  • Clean using best practices for minimizing aersolization of fine particulates:
    • Wet-wipe and discard used rags. Do not dry dust with a feather duster or anything like that.
    • Mop instead of sweeping. Wet mopping will capture more fine particulates in the water. Sweeping creates massive amounts of airborne dust.
    • Use a True-HEPA vacuum on carpets, floors, couches, beds, etc. Vacuum only when you’re about to leave the space for some time. Vacuuming, even with a HEPA vacuum, will generate significant dust in the air. Leaving right after you vacuum allows fine particulates to settle out of the air. Vacuuming a bedroom right before bed is not advisable.
    • Hire a professional if odors or visible dust feels overwhelming or health threatening.
  • Run central ventilation fans in recirculation mode. This process – even with standard residential air filters – has been found to successfully remove fine particulates from the air.
  • Use a plug in HEPA air purifier or scrubber 24/7, but especially during and after cleaning and while sleeping.

Most of the above comments were about managing dust (“fine particulates”) and smoke. Smoke smells are tricky and worthy of a follow up blog. Smoke smell from fires can linger on building materials. Common approaches include applying a liquid vapor barrier over materials or using Ozone indoors. There are pros and cons of each approach, and there are other options to discuss. Our advice is to first focus on the dust and then tackle the smoke smell next.

Hang in there California – rains are coming!