Conversation Guide: Stay Safe from Wildfire Smoke


As wildfires are becoming more frequent and larger in the United States and Canada, NRC-RIM along with our partners at International Rescue Commitee developed a conversation guide for service providers to talk with Afghan newcomers about staying healthy from wildfire smoke. 

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Why is the air so smoky?

Wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent in the United States and Canada. Smoke from wildfires can travel long distances, so even people who do not live near fires can breathe it in and get health problems.

Is it safe to be around wildfire smoke?

Wildfire smoke is dangerous for your health. It can cause problems with your heart and lungs, and if you already have health problems, wildfire smoke can make them worse. 

What health problems can wildfire smoke cause?

If you breathe in wildfire smoke, you might experience irritated eyes and nose, scratchy throat, coughing, difficulty breathing, headaches, increased tiredness, chest pain, wheezing or a fast heartbeat. If you have asthma, wildfire smoke can cause you to have an asthma attack.

Who is at a greater risk of health problems from wildfire smoke?

Breathing wildfire smoke can make anyone sick, but some people are at greater risk for health problems than others.

  • Children are more likely to experience health problems because of their small size and developing lungs. They may also be around wildfire smoke more than adults because they may spend more time outside. 
  • Pregnant women are at risk for having their baby too early if they are exposed to wildfire smoke. 
  • Older adults have more severe problems from  wildfire smoke because it makes other health problems they may have worse. 
  • People of all ages with heart or lung diseases, including asthma and respiratory infections, are more likely to be affected by wildfire smoke than others. 
  • People of all ages who live in places that already have a lot of pollution (unhealthy air), like busy highways, may feel more effects from wildfire smoke. 

How can I protect myself and my family from wildfire smoke?

There are ways to protect yourself and your family from wildfire smoke. When wildfire smoke is in the air, spend time indoors as much as possible.

Keep the air indoors as clean by keeping windows closed. If you have air conditioning, you can use it to refresh the indoor air while keeping smoky outdoor air out. If you do not have air conditioning, spend time in a library or community center that does. You can also filter your indoor air with a portable air filter or a homemade air filter with a box fan.

Avoid activities that make the indoor air more unhealthy. This includes smoking, using candles, vacuuming, using a gas stove, or frying or broiling food. Using electric pressure cookers to prepare meals is a safe way to cook food. Using a mop or wet cloth instead of a vacuum is a safe way to clean when the air is unhealthy.

What if I have to be outdoors when it is smoke?

If you have to be outdoors, try not to do exercise or other activities where you breathe deeply. You can also consider wearing a mask. Some masks can protect you from wildfire smoke, but they have to be high-quality and fit tightly over your nose and mouth.

How do I know if the air is safe?

U.S. officials measure and report on how clean air is in your community. They call this measurement the Air Quality Index or AQI. Listen to the news or weather reports, or ask your case manager about AQI. Some phone apps also measure AQI.

If the AQI is:

  • Less than 50: it is safe to be outside without restrictions 
  • Between 51 and 100: some people who are very sensitive may have trouble breathing the air. 
  • Between 101 and 150: the air is unhealthy for people who are at greater risk for health problems. 
  • 151 or more: the air is unhealthy for everyone.