How to Protect Yourself from Dangerous Smoke Inhalation During Fires

As the historically deadly wildfires continue to rage in parts of Northern and Southern California, the resulting smoke poses a significant risk to people in the surrounding areas.

Between the fires in the San Fernando Valley outside of San Francisco and those in Ventura County near Los Angeles, millions of people have been exposed to air pollution from the smoke. The Woolsey fires are consuming the towns of Thousand Oaks and Malibu, among others, putting the residents of Los Angeles at an even greater health risk due to wind patterns.

“In Ventura, a lot of the cities in the nearby areas are upwind of the fires. So there were times over the weekend that they were getting pretty bad smoke exposure, but the smoke exposure was actually worse in the city of Los Angeles,” Dr. Suzanne Paulson, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and director of the Center for Clean Air at UCLA, tells PEOPLE.

Paulson explains that the two types of winds in the city have very different effects on the air pollution.

“We have two typical wind regimes in Los Angeles. One is the Santa Ana winds that blow very strongly from the land to the ocean, and unfortunately, they’re also associated with very dry weather, and they’re strong winds, so they make the fire much worse.”

“What happened this weekend was a big smoke cloud over the ocean from the Santa Ana winds, and then the winds reversed to the other normal regime, the sea breeze, which brings air from the ocean over the city,” she continues. “So the sea breeze brought the smoke flume over the city in a huge way over the weekend. Right now, we’re back to the Santa Ana conditions, so the air is clean, but the fire is raging, and in the next couple of days we may see the sea breeze bringing the smoke cloud into the city again.”

And when smoke comes into the area, it’s “absolutely” dangerous for people to be outside.

“It causes coughing, and it feel like your eyes are burning. It can feel tight in the chest and like you have trouble breathing,” Paulson says. “It’s absolutely dangerous to go outside when the smoke is at its worst. It’s not going to make you drop dead on the spot, but exposure to elevated air pollution degrades your health slightly, and the more air pollution exposure the more your overall health is degraded over your life.”

While most people will not experience lasting effects from the smoke pollution, Paulson says, the particles will remain in their lungs for “many years,” which, combined with other health issues, could create bigger problems. And the outlook is worse for people with pre-existing conditions.

“People who have pre-existing conditions could have more significant health effects, like people who are asthmatic, or have cardiovascular conditions,” she says. “If they go outside and move around a lot, they could potentially have an episode.”

Paulson says it’s best to stay inside when the smoke levels are high, but if people need to go outdoors, opt for something other than a thin mouth covering.

“Most of the things people wear are a waste,” she says. “A bandana does nothing, and a surgical mask does nothing.”

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Instead, Paulson recommends N95 respirators, which are available at hardware stores for around $10.

“If they fit tightly around the face so the air goes through them and not around them, they are quite useful at reducing exposure,” she says. “They’re not a great inconvenience, and people should absolutely be wearing them if the air quality is bad and they’re outside and moving around.”

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