Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials

From the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this document offers state, local, and tribal public health officials updated guidance on communicating to the public about wildfire smoke health risks and protective measures. This guide provides recommendations on preparing for wildfire smoke season and reducing smoke exposure for the public and at-risk groups or vulnerable populations. The information provided as well as the associated factsheets on wildfire smoke protection can be useful for other health and air quality professionals as well as the general public.

The guide reviews the health risks of wildfire smoke with a focus on fine particulate matter (PM) as the greatest health threat. Children, older adults, pregnant women, outdoor workers, people with respiratory or cardiovascular disease, and people of lower socioeconomic status tend to be at greater risk of health effects from smoke exposure.  Recommendations to reduce smoke exposure and mitigate health impacts from wildfire smoke - especially for these “at-risk” groups -  are provided in detail in Section III, including:

  • Stay indoors (the most common advisory) 
  • Reduce physical activity
  • Create a “clean room” at home or go to a public “cleaner air shelter”
  • Use proper respiratory protection (primarily for people who must be outdoors)
  • Evacuate the area (especially for members of at-risk groups)
  • Consider closures or cancellations of schools, business activities, or public events

Sections IV and V offer public health officials guidance on when and how to communicate the above recommendations. Further recommendations include to monitor PM levels, to consider predicted peak levels and duration of very fine PM, as well as the usage of a “visual range” monitoring approach for communities lacking continuous PM monitoring - to generally determine when and what types of exposure reduction actions should be taken. Table 5 provides recommendations on the types of public health actions to take depending on the air quality and PM levels - including to issue public service announcements on ways to reduce smoke exposure, implement air quality School Activity Guidelines, cancel outdoor events, and consider evacuation of at-risk populations, among others. 

The guide also includes preparedness recommendations for health officials before the fire season starts such as to: 

  • check monthly outlooks of fire risk level
  • identify cleaner air shelter locations
  • prepare a communication plan for quick dissemination of information to the public and to at-risk populations
  • build strong partnerships with air quality and land management agencies and media.

This updated guide was produced by the EPA in collaboration with the California Air Resources Board; California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and U.S. Forest Service. 

 

Publication Date: August 2019

Related Organizations:

Sectors:

Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Best practice
  • Indicators

Impacts:

  • Wildfires

Go To Resource