It's only the beginning of the year and roughly 55% of the U.S. is experiencing drought.
If you live in one of these areas or have access to the news, you know that drought makes areas more prone to ravaging wildfires.
Emergency preparedness is critical as drought conditions continue throughout the year. One often overlooked aspect of wildfire preparation is buying an efficient, safe mask to protect your lungs from the effects of smoke (check out our ultimate guide on wildfire preparedness here!).
Keep reading to learn how to choose the best mask for wildfire smoke so that you can keep yourself and your peers healthy.
Prevalence and Risks of Wildfires
In 2021, more than 58,000 wildfires burned more than 7.1 million acres of land. This wasn't just wild land, either.
Thousands of people had to evacuate from wildfires last year, such as residents near Boulder during the Marshall fire.
With more than half of the country in drought as of February, it's safe to assume that a large portion of Americans will be affected by wildfires. This could be through direct impact from burning around them or indirect impact from smoke crossing state lines.
In fact, wildfire smoke can travel thousands of miles away from the source of burning.
This happens because smoke contains fine particles. The most dangerous component of wildfire smoke tends to be 2.5 microns and smaller.
For reference on how small these particles are, a thin sheet of paper is around 70 microns. This is 28 times larger than wildfire smoke particles.
Because wildfire smoke is mostly made up of fine particles, it can be dangerous to people's respiratory health. We've wrote a more in depth article about how wildfire smoke can affect people's health - Understanding the Impact of Wildfires on Air Quality and Your Health – Parcil Safety
Depending on a person's preexisting medical conditions, exposure to smoke can cause:
- Irritated eyes
- Respiratory tract irritation and inflammation
- Difficulty breathing
- Increased asthma symptoms and attacks
- Heart failure
In general, smoke reduces the lung's ability to function efficiently. Along with other health consequences, this can decrease the body's ability to remove bacteria and viruses from the lungs.
If you are in an area affected by wildfires, consider buying a mask before the season starts so that you can stay healthy.
Why N95 Masks Aren't the Best
To understand which mask is the best choice, you should first know about N95 masks. They offer the minimum level of protection a person would want from wildfire smoke.
Due to the pandemic, most people are now familiar with these masks. These are the disposable masks that are often worn in medical settings. They've become the worldwide standard for virus protection because they stop liquid droplets from passing inside and outside of the mask.
N95 masks are also a top result you may find when researching wildfire smoke protection. In addition to protecting from droplets, they also protect wearers from smoke and other particles.
These masks are considered to be the baseline standard for smoke protection because they filter 95% of particles at the size of 0.3 microns. As previously mentioned, smoke particles are 2.5 microns and smaller, meaning that this filter provides acceptable protection.
All of this said they aren't the best option available.
N95 masks don't protect against gases or vapors, meaning you aren't getting protection from the other pollutants found in wildfire smoke, such as carbon monoxide or hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). You also aren't protecting your eyes from smoke, which can result in itchiness, dryness, or burning.
On top of that, N95s are disposable, meaning that you'll have to grab a new mask after 2 to 3 days of wear. This is a growing environmental concern as an estimated 3.4 billion masks are thrown away each day due to the pandemic.
The last drawback is that standard N95 masks only have two attachment points to your head: straps above and below your ears. As a result, they aren't fit for children and they aren't as secure as other options.
If you're planning on spending time in the smoke during wildfire season, opt for a full-face respirator gas mask instead.
Full-Face Respirator Gas Mask for Wildfire Smoke
A full-face respirator, such as the PD-100, creates a tight seal around your eyes and airways so that smoke can't get in. This makes it an ideal piece of protection for those who need to wear their mask while being active, as it will stay firmly in place.
You don't have to sacrifice breathability and comfort to stay safe in the smoke. The PD-100 mask has a low breathing resistance and its elasticized rubber fits your face without pulling on your hair or skin. You can wear it all day without experiencing the fog or discomfort associated with other masks.
Our full-face respirator masks have the same filtration capabilities as an N95. They filter 95% of particulates down to 0.3 microns. It doesn't stop there, though.
They effectively block a wide range of various materials through the activated carbon filters. This means that you can use it for a multitude of tasks outside of smoke protection, such as when applying pesticides, painting, metalworking, and more.
Why settle for a baseline mask when you can get something that protects against more pollutants while lasting longer?
When to Wear Your Mask
Now that you know to get a full-face respirator mask for fire safety, you should know the best times to wear it.
A good way to determine if the smoke around you is severe enough to wear a mask is to reference your local air quality index (AQI).
AQI is a measurement scale of air quality that ranges from 0 to 500. A rating of zero would be pristine air while a rating of 500 is considered hazardous air.
An AQI above 100 is the starting point of unhealthy air quality for at-risk populations. Once it climbs above 151 AQI, it becomes more and more unhealthy for the rest of the population. We also have a great post on what air quality should you wear a mask.
You can check your local AQI anytime on airnow.gov. This will show you a real-time score as well as recommended activity levels.
There's one problem with this system. It implies that you must be inside when the air quality is poor, which during fire season, can be for months at a time.
If you spend a lot of time outdoors throughout the year, you can still do it when the AQI is high -- if you have a proper mask.
Once fire season is in effect, begin checking your local AQI daily to determine when you should wear your full-face mask for smoke protection. Identify which scores may affect you negatively and plan accordingly.
Preserve Your Indoor Air Quality
If you're wearing your mask when outdoors, you should also be taking proper precautions to protect your indoor air quality (IAQ) to maintain good health.
Address the following three weak points in your home so that the pollutants of smoke have a harder time getting inside.
The first and most obvious way that smoke gets in is through natural ventilation. Natural ventilation occurs through open doors and windows. You can avoid natural ventilation by keeping windows shut and limiting how often you pass through your exterior doors.
The second weak point to address is mechanical ventilation. Through fresh air intake, fans and HVAC systems can bring smoke inside your home. You can fix this issue by installing high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which are essentially masks for your home itself.
The final and most tricky issue to address is smoke infiltration. Smoke infiltration occurs when you have small openings or drafts around windows and doors.
You can remediate this issue temporarily during fire season by lining these openings with fabric or by taking them shut. A more permanent solution is to caulk the gaps closed.
If the smoke is bad enough to wear a mask outside, then it's bad enough to take these precautions to "mask up" your home. If the AQI is high enough, you may need to do all of these things and wear a mask indoors.
Hopefully, you won't have to do that this fire season. Still, it's better to be prepared just in case.
In addition to sealing your home, be sure to have an emergency bug-out bag equipped with medical supplies and fire safety devices in case the fire quickly nears your home.
Now that you understand the need for a mask for wildfire smoke, you can get prepared for the upcoming season by choosing the best option available.
Buy a mask that is effective, comfortable, and reusable for seasons to come.
Shop full-face respirators now. Get a mask before you need a mask to stay healthy during fire season.