Wildfire smoke 101: How to prepare for wildfire smoke

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Organization: Health Canada

Date published: 2021

Smoke from wildfires in forests and grasslands can be a major source of air pollution for Canadians.

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About wildfire smoke events

Communities across Canada experience wildfire smoke events, typically from April to October. Smoke may be carried hundreds or thousands of kilometres from the fire zone. It is difficult to predict:

  • when fires will occur
  • how big they will be
  • how much smoke they will generate

If you live in an area at higher risk for wildfires, it's best to be prepared. You can develop plans and take actions to protect yourself and your family before wildfire season starts.

Checklist for wildfire smoke season preparedness

  • Are you or is someone in your family at risk for wildfire smoke health effects?
  • Do you have an adequate supply of medications?
  • Do you have an adequate supply of food and water?
  • Have you replaced or cleaned your air filters in your ventilation system or air purifier?
  • Do you know where you can go to take a break from the smoke?
  • Do you know where to find information about local air quality conditions?
  • Do you know the emergency number for your local health authority?

People at risk

Some people may be at higher risk to the health effects of wildfire smoke exposure, including:

  • seniors
  • pregnant people
  • people who smoke
  • infants and young children
  • people who work outdoors
  • people involved in strenuous outdoor exercise
  • people with an existing illness or chronic health conditions, such as:
    • cancer
    • diabetes
    • lung or heart conditions

Medical preparedness

If you, or members of your family, are in one or more of the at-risk groups and are in a region where air quality is impacted by wildfire smoke, be prepared by:

  • speaking with a doctor or health care provider about developing a management plan for wildfire smoke events.
  • maintaining a supply of necessary medications at home and always carrying these medications with you during wildfire season. Work with your health care provider to create a plan on what to do in case your medications are unable to stabilize your condition.

Consider these points to ensure you are prepared for a wildfire smoke event.

Prepare your home

It's important that the air we breathe inside our home is clean because we spend a lot of time indoors. To ensure you have clean air in your home, you can prepare in advance by:

  • purchasing a clean, good quality air filter (for example, HEPA filter) for your ventilation system
  • ensuring you have at least one functioning carbon monoxide alarm in your home
  • properly sealing windows and doors

Consider purchasing a portable air purifier. These devices can remove particles from wildfire smoke from indoor air and those who are at risk will benefit most from using one in their home. There are many models available. It's best to do some research and find an air purifier that's appropriate for the size of the room you plan to use it in.

Learn more about choosing an air purifier that is appropriate for your needs.

To find more information on protecting your indoor air when your outdoor air is poor, visit:

Find clean cool air

If you can't maintain clean air inside your home during a wildfire smoke event, be aware of locations in your community where you can find clean air. Libraries, shopping malls and community centres typically have filters and air conditioning that make them safe places to take a break from the smoke. For more information, contact your local health or emergency authorities. Follow guidance from local authorities.

Find reliable information about wildfire conditions

There are a number of tools available to determine whether smoke is affecting your air quality. Know where to find these tools and information about your local air quality.

Download the WeatherCAN app, available on iOS and Android devices, and receive free notifications about weather events and extreme heat, which is often a precursor to wildfires.

Consult the air quality health index (AQHI) and learn how to use the AQHI to check air quality conditions in your community.

FIREWORK (Canada's wildfire smoke prediction system) smoke forecast maps show how:

  • the air quality in your community may be affected by wildfire smoke
  • smoke from wildfires is expected to move across North America over the next 72 hours

Satellite imagery is another advanced tool used to track smoke movements.

Search for @ECCCweather twitter accounts in your region.

Follow us on Facebook.

If your community is threatened by an approaching wildfire, your local health or emergency authorities will provide direction. Be prepared to evacuate at any time. If told to evacuate, do so immediately.

For more information on what to do in a wildfire emergency, visit Wildfire smoke, air quality and your health.

Share helpful information about wildfire conditions

Use social media to let forecasters know what is happening in your area. Tweet us @ECCCweather and @environmentca when you smell or see smoke in your area.

Spending time outdoors during a wildfire smoke event

If you or members of your family spend time outdoors:

  • learn how to check the local air quality conditions in your area to determine whether it is safe to be outdoors
  • listen to your body and reduce or stop activities if you are experiencing symptoms.
  • have a plan for limiting exposure to wildfire smoke if you will be caring for children or participating in any outdoor events
  • review resources from your provincial or territorial workers compensation organization for guidance on how to work outside during wildfire season
  • If you must spend time outdoors, a well-fitted respirator type mask (such as a NIOSH certified N95 or equivalent respirator) that does not allow air to pass through small openings between the mask and face, can help reduce your exposure to the fine particles in smoke. These fine particles generally pose the greatest risk to health. However, respirators do not reduce exposure to the gases in wildfire smoke. It is important to listen to your body and reduce or stop activities if you are experiencing symptoms.

For more information on topics related to wildfire smoke and health, please visit Wildfire smoke, air quality and your health.

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