Disaster Guidance: 10 Tips for Staying Healthy During Wildfires

Fire season challenges all Californians: clinicians, patients, families, and the public. The 2021 drought adds considerable complexity on many fronts. California | Drought.gov We hope to support the needs of all Californians with this wildfire resource guide.

Wildfire smoke can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. It can make you cough and wheeze, and it can make it hard to breathe. Inhaling smoke can be especially dangerous for anyone with a lung disorder. Persons at risk include those with lung or heart disease, pregnant women, older individuals, and young children—all of whom need to take special care and consider consulting with their doctor about specific precautions.

General considerations during worsening air quality or increase in smoke and/or fires.

  1. Stay indoors with windows and doors closed.
  2. Reduce physical activity.
  3. Reduce other sources of indoor air pollution (smoking cigarettes, vaping, wood-burning stove, frying meat). Do not vacuum anywhere in the house.
  4. Use central air conditioner or filters. A home’s heater set to the fan mode may be able to filter out some of the particles by “recirculating” the indoor air through the filter. Consult with a heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) specialist to find out if your home heating system can handle a MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) 13 filter to filter out wildfire smoke particles.
  5. Create one or more clean rooms at home: Use an interior room with fewer doors and windows and run an air conditioner and portable HEPA air cleaner, if possible. Check that the portable HEPA air cleaner that you purchase has the appropriate clean air delivery rate (CADR) for the size of the room you want to filter.
  6. Note: do not use air cleaners that produce ozone such as “super oxygenators” or deionizers.
  7. When traveling in a vehicle, keep the windows closed and run the air conditioner. Set air to “re-circulate” to reduce smoke.
  8. An N95 mask can help reduce inhalation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), especially if it covers your nose and mouth and fits tightly on your face. None of these masks protect against hazardous gas inhalation. The following video demonstrates how to properly put on an N95 mask. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=0d_RaKdqeck
  9. Consider evacuation to areas with lower AQI for persons with respiratory health problems (especially with asthma, COPD/emphysema, and pulmonary fibrosis).
  10. Patients with asthma or COPD should ensure that they are taking their maintenance (“controller”) medications or discuss an appropriate regimen with their physician.

Patient Education

Local Area Air Quality Management Districts resources.

https://www.airnow.gov provides a searchable air quality index (AQI) including fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ozone levels, air quality forecast, and resources.


CTS thanks John Balmes MD for updating this resource.

ATS/California Thoracic Society (CTS) Members:

  • Lorriana Leard, MD (lorriana.leard@ucsf.edu), University of California, San Francisco, CTS Past President
  • Angela Wang, MD (acwang@health.ucsd.edu), CTS Past President
  • Lekshmi Santhosh, MD (lekshmi.santhosh@ucsf.edu), University of California, San Francisco,
  • John Balmes, MD (john.balmes@ucsf.edu), University of California, San Francisco, CTS Past President