Wildfires played an integral role in shaping the landscape of the West. Now, with climate change driving more frequent and intense wildfires, these fires and their far-traveling smoke are impacting our lives and livelihoods. Nearly the entire West (and much of the northern tier of the U.S.) is plagued by wildfire smoke right now

You can help by avoiding any outdoor activity that could spark a human-caused fire. To track and understand fire restrictions across the state, check https://www.idl.idaho.gov/fire-management/fire-restrictions-finder/

Protect Your Health

First things first – what can you do to protect your health? Avoid spending time outside and doing strenuous activity as much as you can. Even if you can’t smell it, the smoke outside is filled with very small particles called PM10 and PM2.5. Exposure to too much smoke can cause a variety of health effects, ranging from irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat to difficulties with breathing, heart inflammation, and exacerbation of existing conditions.

PM2.5 and PM10 are fine particles generated by wildfires and combustion, which threaten public health.

But these aren’t the only pollutants we need to be worried about. We’re in the heat of summer, a time when we also see the highest concentrations of ozone pollution. Ozone forms when sunlight interacts with pollution from vehicle exhaust. Elevated ozone and smoke pollution create a serious public health risk. This is why ICL’s climate work seeks to electrify transportation – so our vehicles aren’t adding pollution at times when pollution is already at dangerous levels.

Work Toward A Better Future

The recent unprecedented heat wave and intense wildfires burning across the West should be a wake-up call to our elected leaders. Climate change is here and impacting our lives today. Experts predict more wildfire, less snow, and increased drought frequencies in Idaho. We must adapt and build resilience to these predicted changes if we’re going to safeguard our health, economy, and natural resources.

Adapting to change is only part of the solution though. It’s vital that we also do our part and clean up Idaho’s sources of carbon pollution and promote agricultural practices that can sequester carbon and reduce additional greenhouse gas pollution.

These changes won’t happen if Idahoans don’t speak up and demand change. If your elected leaders don’t know how you feel about climate change, now is the time to call them!

Fight Fire with Fire

Preparing for more frequent and intense wildfires may require more fire. While many of the fires in California and Oregon are occurring in wet forests that burn infrequently (250-500 years), many of Idaho’s drier forest types present a different situation. 

Over the past century, land managers prioritized putting out fires immediately rather than letting them burn. The suppression of fire, especially in drier, lower-elevation forests, has allowed fuel to build up, amplifying the threat of severe wildfires. This fuel buildup has occurred over hundreds of thousands of acres of forests across Idaho, and one of the best tools for preventing uncontrolled wildfire is prescribed fire.

Prescribed fire involves igniting a fire under safe conditions in order to remove excess fuel and promote forest health. Fire managers wait until conditions for a fire, such as soil moisture, temperature, and weather patterns for smoke dispersal, are ideal. Once started, conditions are carefully monitored to ensure it remains under control. In some areas, land managers don’t have the flexibility to apply controlled fires, and efforts to reduce fuels and restore natural disturbance regimes involve thinning projects, especially around communities.

Regardless of whether the fire is prescribed or unplanned, there are a few steps you can take to ensure you remain healthy in the face of smoke.

  • Limit the time you spend outside and avoid exercising or physical exertion.
  • Keep your windows and doors closed.
  • Avoid household activities that could add or stir up airborne particles such as vacuuming, broiling or frying food, or using a fireplace.
  • Set your car’s air conditioning to recirculate the cabin air and close your home’s fresh air intake vents on the A/C unit.
  • If the smoke is at unhealthy or hazardous levels, look into creating a clean room at home with a non-ozone-producing air purifier.

Keep yourself safe while there is smoke and raise awareness of the connection between climate change, wildfires, and your health.

Updated from a September 2020 post.