Breathing easy: Tips for dealing with smoke, unhealthy air

Smoky skies over Lake Tahoe in October 2020. | Kayla Anderson

Fingers crossed that we have a healthy and clean-air summer, but we all know that living in the Tahoe Sierra means the wildfire danger is real and with that comes unhealthy smoke. Coupled with the added air quality impacts from prescribed burns and smoke that can blow into the area from other fires, this can affect everyone’s health.

Inhaling smoke particles affects the lungs and heart, and high concentrations of it can causecontinual coughing, a runny nose, wheezing, bronchitis, a stuffy nose, asthma attacks and difficulty breathing. Even just the presence of smoke and/or not being able to see across the lake can cause mental health issues.

Here are some tips for how to breathe easier and stay healthy when smoke effects the air quality.

Know the air quality measures air quality by the amount of particulate matter in the air and releases an Air Quality Index (AQI) daily. You can find the AQI online or on the AirNow app. Most weather apps also include the AQI in daily forecasts. During the height of the Caldor Fire in 2021, AQI levels hovered around 100 to 300 in the Tahoe Basin.

Indoor air health
Besides keeping windows closed, if you have a central AC system make sure that its outdoor air intakes are shut to avoid drawing smoke into the home. Air filters typically last three months to a year, but when there is smoke present, filters need to be changed more often. It’s also worth avoiding smoking cigarettes, using gas/propane/wood stoves, broiling meat and burning candlesindoors during these times. Vacuuming can also stir up fine particles.

Air purifiers with HEPA filters can get rid of smoke particulates. In March 2024, Consumer Reports shared a study rating the best air purifiers for wildfire smoke that are on the market and what you should look for when buying an air purifier.

In cleaning up ash and soot from a fireplace or fire pit, keep in mind that most standard vacuum cleaners don’t filter out harmful particulates, so trying to suck up ash using a shop vac won’t get rid of it. Instead, use a wet washcloth or mop to wipe off surfaces or use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Reduce physical activity
As we all know, Tahoe draws many outdoor enthusiasts when the weather is nice and unfortunately our physical activity can greatly suffer when smoke is present. When we exercise, we tend to suck in air 20 times more frequently from our resting level, which means that exercising during a wildfire can lead to more advanced health issues. I could only take two short wakeboard runs on Lake Tahoe during the 2007 Angora fire before I couldn’t breathe anymore after the wind shifted and the smoke rolled in. This is also the reason many paddleboard and kayak rental shops and boat charter businesses are closed when the Air Quality Index (AQI) reaches unhealthy levels.

If you do want to exercise, consider visiting a gym, local yoga studio or working out in your house.

Wear a mask
If you work in a building, construction or landscaping trade, then doing your job outside in smoke can be brutal. If you absolutely must be out there, then be sure to wear a fitted N95 or P100 respirator mask. Floating ash that lands on your skin can also be dangerous, so wear gloves, long-sleeved shirts, pants, and other PPE while working outside.

The “95” in an N95 mask means that it blocks 95 percent of particulates that come through, and a P100 is like wearing a HEPA filter (the “P” means that it also filters out chemicals/oil-based aerosols).

AQI scale / escala ICA

  • 0-50: Good
  • 51-100: Moderate
  • 101-150: Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
  • 151-200: Unhealthy
  • 201-300: Very Unhealthy
  • 301+: Hazardous

Resources / Recursos

 Read Tahoe Guide’s 4th Annual Wildfire Preparedness Guide