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Smoke over mountains from a distant wildfire
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5 Things to Know About Traveling During Wildfire Season

SmarterTravel

As wildfires become bigger and more common, smoke pollution has become a way of life in many parts of the country, including places that have never grappled with the issue before. According to Ford Seeman, founder, and president of the nonprofit environmental foundation,  Forest Founders, “Climate change is disrupting life as we have been accustomed to it. Droughts and fires are causing desertification. Every season, over the last few years, we have broken records for acreage burned and economic damage caused.” Seeman says this doesn’t just affect the areas where the fires occur, either. He explains, “Changes in wind patterns have caused smoke from current forest fires to impact an incredibly large portion of the United States.” 

If you live in or are traveling to, an area affected by wildfire smoke, you may have questions about what activities you can safely participate in without risking your health. To find the answers, we went to Dr. Reza Ronaghi, a pulmonologist in the division of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and Dr. William Lang, former White House doctor and current Medical Director at WorldClinic

At What Point Is Air Quality Deemed “Unhealthy”? 

According to Dr. Ronaghi, it’s a good idea to follow your local news stations, weather channels, and websites like AirNow.gov for up-to-date information on your local AQI (air quality index) score. He says, “Generally, levels above 100 are unhealthy for those with lung problems” (like people with allergies). Ronaghi adds, “Levels above 150 are unhealthy for the general public.” He advises to err on the side of caution and recommends that all individuals limit their time outside when the AQI is above 100. 

What Activities Are Safe in Areas Impacted by Wildfire Smoke? 

Dr. Lang says that the risk level increases based on how strenuous or physically demanding an activity is. He explains, “Intense, aerobic activity has the greatest risk of adverse health effects because of the increased consumption of oxygen during these activities.” 

To remain safe in areas with an unhealthy AQI, Dr. Ranaghi advises, “Avoid outdoor activities including sports.” Instead, he suggests focusing on indoor activities. Look at it as a chance to plan a family game night or binge-watch a great series. 

Can You Go Camping in Areas Impacted by Wildfire Smoke? 

Camping in areas with unhealthy AQI scores is not a good idea since you’ll be spending the majority of your time outdoors. Not only will those gorgeous outdoor views be obscured, but, according to Dr. Ranaghi, “You can inhale the smoke and particles.” This, unfortunately, means that it may be necessary to make alternate plans or lodging arrangements if you were planning to visit affected areas. 

Can You Grill Outside in Areas Impacted by Wildfire Smoke? 

Dr. Lang says stepping outside to grill food is relatively safe. He explains, “Particulates and most compounds are degraded and broken down within the acidity of the gastrointestinal tract. He adds, however, “I would recommend eating inside to avoid breathing excess polluted air.” 

Will Wearing a Mask Offer Protection Against Wildfire Smoke?

Although both Dr. Lang and Dr. Ranaghi were clear that you should avoid spending time outdoors in areas where the air quality is unhealthy, there may be times when staying indoors just isn’t possible. Both doctors state that in these cases, it’s a good idea to wear a properly fitted N95 mask. Dr. Lang adds that “Regular cloth surgical masks or any other, non-fitted face covering, would not provide many benefits.” In the end, it comes down to flexibility. If you’re visiting an area impacted by wildfire smoke, be sure to monitor the AQI frequently since air quality can change throughout the day. Be prepared to change plans if necessary to keep yourself safe. 

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