When summer is in full swing in Bozeman, peak daytime temperatures aren’t the only new arrival. Every year from approximately July through September is fire season in Montana.
If you are near a wildfire, the fire, smoke, and ash pose significant risks to your health and safety. You and your family should have an established, well-communicated evacuation plan in place before fire season arrives, and make sure everyone in your home knows how to find out if evacuation orders are issued for your area.
Even when wildfires are far away, the smoke they create can cause the outdoor air quality to decline significantly. When a smoke or fire event causes poor air quality, those living and working nearby are urged to remain indoors.
Before planning outdoor activities, Montana visitors and residents should consult the state website’s Wildfire Smoke Outlook page. The information on this site is updated hourly with data from Montana’s 23 air monitoring stations so you can view the current air quality index and make decisions about whether outdoor activities are safe. Each air monitoring station also makes its hourly assessments available so you can view the measurements taken in your area. (See here for current Bozeman air quality conditions.)
While you can use your calendar and online tools to plan ahead, Mother Nature doesn’t always stick to a schedule. In 2021, June’s dual Deep Creek and Willow Creek fires announced fire season’s earlier-than-expected onset. And, no matter when wildfire season arrives, you’ll need to be prepared for poor air quality outside your home, and inside, as well.
How to Improve Indoor Air Quality During Fire Season
The gases and fine particles contained in wildfire smoke can get in your eyes and lungs, causing health concerns ranging from a runny nose and burning eyes to bronchitis. Smoke exposure can take a heavy toll on children and older adults’ health and can aggravate the symptoms or lead to premature death for those living with chronic heart and lung ailments.
When wildfire smoke makes the air outside your home unhealthy to breathe, your indoor air quality can also decline.
Outdoor air enters your home in various ways. Open windows and doors, kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans, and home heating and cooling systems are all common entry avenues for the outdoor air that ends up in your home. However, even when your windows and doors are closed, small cracks and openings allow outdoor air to infiltrate your home.
If you live in Bozeman, Montana, or another region with a high risk of wildfire, you should take steps to prepare your home and family for fire season. Creating an evacuation plan, keeping your landscape free of brush and debris, and stock up on medications and other necessities so you won’t need to leave the house if a wildfire breaks out. You should also take measures that can improve your indoor air quality and protect your family’s health.
Lowering the Concentrations of Indoor Air Pollutants
Even without wildfire smoke, indoor air pollution can lead to adverse health outcomes for you and your family. There are various sources of indoor air pollutants, including oil, gas, wood, coal, building materials, cleaning products, and more. When these pollutants aren’t sufficiently vented, and outdoor air doesn’t circulate, dangerous levels of pollutant particles can accumulate.
Wildfire smoke can also get inside your home, making your indoor air unhealthy to breathe. However, you can take measures to protect your health by lowering the concentrations of indoor air pollutants, including those from wildfire smoke.
If your home has a central heating and cooling system, replacing its filter can help to reduce concentrations of indoor air pollutants. A filter’s particle-capturing capability is reflected in its Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV). Many home systems use a standard 1” fiberglass filter with a MERV of 1-4. Filters in this range capture less than 20% of particles between 3.0 and 10 microns (µm). High-efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters with MERV ratings between 17 and 20 can capture and remove particles as low as .3 microns with 99% efficiency. However, replacing your standard filter with even a medium efficiency filter with a MERV rating between 5 and 8 can cause a significant reduction of particles in your indoor air.
When you live in an area prone to wildfires or which frequently has poor air quality due to wildfires, setting up a clean room in your home is considered a best practice. A cleanroom is a room you prepare in advance of fire season, if possible, and is designed to keep smoke and particle levels as low as possible.
You should select a room where pollution-creating tasks, such as smoking or cooking, don’t take place. A room without a fireplace and with few windows and doors is ideal. When a wildfire or smoke event occurs, you should keep windows in the cleanroom closed and set up a portable air cleaner inside to help filter unhealthy particles out of the air.
Portable air cleaners can be used alone or along with your central air system to filter pollutants from your indoor air. The amount of particle reduction you can accomplish with an air cleaner depends on several factors, including the size of the room, the filter’s rating, the size of the unit, and the fan speed. If you are planning to purchase a new air cleaner, be sure to select one that does not produce ozone, which is a known health hazard.
If your HVAC system has an option to pull fresh air in from outdoors, make sure to close the intake and disable this setting when the outdoor air quality is poor. If you’re unsure whether your system has this setting, you can review the owner’s manual or consult with an HVAC technician.
In general, most HVAC systems do not bring fresh air into the house. While this reduces the available paths for wildfire smoke to enter your home, it can also cause indoor air pollution to exceed outdoor levels at other times of the year. If your HVAC system is only recirculating indoor air, you should get into the habit of opening your windows and doors when the weather permits so dangerous pollution levels don’t accumulate indoors. It’s also important to use bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans to remove contaminants from your indoor air when you’re cooking and cleaning.
During a wildfire or smoke event, you’ll want to limit the amount of outdoor air circulating in your home. However, as soon as the outdoor air quality improves, even if it’s only temporary, it’s important to open windows and doors and take other measures to air out your home. This will reduce accumulated indoor pollution and make the air indoors healthier to breathe.
Eliminate Individual Sources of Pollution
To lower the concentrations of polluting particles in your home, you’ll need to identify and reduce the pollutants’ sources. During fire season, you should avoid using some cleaning and grooming products, including aerosols. While this might sound like a good excuse to take a break from housecleaning during fire season, you can consult the EPA’s website for a list of safe cleaning supplies. Vacuuming, burning candles, and smoking tobacco can also contribute to indoor air pollution and should be avoided when the air quality is poor. When you’re under an air quality alert caused by wildfire smoke or anything else, you should also avoid using wood-burning or gas stoves or fireplaces indoors and avoid frying or broiling meat as much as possible.
In addition to the advanced preparation you can take to improve your indoor air quality, some temporary measures will also help. For example, placing damp rolled towels at the base of doors and windows can temporarily reduce the air entering your home. However, you mustn’t create hazards that would make it difficult to get out of your home should you need to evacuate. If you’re looking for more permanent solutions, you might consider using expandable foam around plumbing fixtures, adding gaskets to your electrical outlets, and adding door sweeps. Remember, though, that you’ll need to air out your home whenever it’s safe to do so if you don’t want indoor pollutants to accumulate.
Do you have questions about how to prepare your home and improve your indoor air quality during fire season?
Owenhouse Ace Hardware is here to help! Our friendly experts are always happy to answer questions and help you find what you need. Call or stop by today to see why Owenhouse Ace has been Bozeman’s trusted one-stop hardware and home improvement spot for more than 100 years.