Best practices for managing the risks of COVID-19 and wildfires

Wildfire smoke seen from wooded area in Colorado

Smoke exposure vs. COVID-19

  • Cough, sore throat, and shortness of breath are symptoms that are common to both smoke inhalation and COVID-19.
    • People experiencing unusual or concerning respiratory symptoms, should be evaluated by a health care provider.
  • People experiencing symptoms unrelated to smoke exposure such as fever or chills, muscle or body aches, or diarrhea, should seek medical attention. These symptoms are not related to smoke exposure or poor air quality, and may be more consistent with COVID-19.
  • If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, do not delay seeking medical attention. Exposure to air pollutants can worsen COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes. It is better to seek prompt medical attention for an evaluation than to dismiss your symptoms as being caused by smoke inhalation.
  • The CDC COVID-19 Self-Checker can help determine whether further assessment or testing for COVID-19 is needed.

People at higher risk

  • People at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 are similar to populations at risk for complications from exposure to wildfire smoke.
    • People who are older  and/or who have chronic respiratory/lung conditions are particularly susceptible to both COVID-19 and wildfire smoke. 
    • If you are an at-risk individual, it is critical for your health that you take precautions to both limit your exposure to smoke and prevent spread of COVID-19.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider, and store a 7- to 10-day surplus supply of prescription medicines in a waterproof, childproof container to take with you if you must evacuate. 
  • Limit outdoor exercise when it is smoky outside, or choose lower-intensity activities to reduce smoke exposure.
    • To reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure, choose individual exercise activities. Avoid exercising in groups and crowded gyms. 
    • If exercising at a gym, follow CDC’s guidelines for using gyms and fitness centers. Wipe down machines and equipment with disinfecting wipes and use hand sanitizer before and after using machines. Do not share items that cannot be appropriately cleaned, such as resistance bands and weightlifting belts.

Home ventilation recommendations

COVID-19 risk reduction recommendations often suggest increasing ventilation, opening windows and doors to circulate air in indoor spaces, and generally suggest that being outdoors is a lower risk than being indoors. However, in areas actively affected by wildfire smoke, it is advisable to follow the home ventilation recommendations for air quality and wildfire smoke. The best thing to do to avoid smoke is to stay indoors, in cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces, ideally in your own home and away from places where you may interact with individuals who are not part of your household. When you have to leave home, wear a cloth face covering or a mask.

  • Whenever possible, use air conditioners, heat pumps, fans, and window shades to keep your cleaner air space comfortable. When running air conditioners, the fan feature of your home heating system, or evaporative coolers, keep the outdoor air intake closed and be sure the filter is clean.
  • Use a portable air cleaner in one or more rooms. They work best when run continuously with doors and windows closed. There are commercially-available units as well as do-it-yourself box fan filtration units. NOTE: Do-it-yourself box fans should never be left unattended as they pose acute fire risks.
  • If you have a forced air system in your home, consider different filters (HEPA or MERV-13 or higher if your system can accommodate that rating) and recirculation settings. Note that many home HVAC systems are not able to use HEPA filters. Contact a qualified HVAC professional if necessary to determine what filters your system can accommodate. 
  • Change your filters frequently -- at minimum, per the manufacturer’s recommended cycle. 
  • Avoid activities that create more indoor pollution such as frying foods, using gas-powered appliances, sweeping, vacuuming, and using a wood-burning heat source.

Cloth face coverings and masks

  • Cloth face coverings that are used to slow the spread of COVID-19 offer little protection against harmful air pollutants in wildfire smoke because these coverings do not capture most small particles in smoke. 
  • Although NIOSH-certified N95 respirators may provide protection from wildfire smoke, they may be in short supply as frontline health care workers use them during the pandemic. Additionally, workers who are required to use N95 respirators to protect against health hazards (including COVID-19 or smoke) must be enrolled in a respiratory protection program, which includes a medical evaluation and fit-testing prior to use.
  • The best thing to do to avoid smoke and simultaneously limit your potential exposure to COVID-19 is to stay indoors in cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces, ideally in your own home, and wear a mask when not in your own home.

Evacuation recommendations

Immediate life safety is of utmost importance. While concerns over COVID-19 exposure are important, wildfire hazards can pose an immediate risk to safety. If you need to evacuate to a community shelter or family member’s/friend’s house to seek safety from the wildfire risk, do so while maintaining reasonable COVID-19 precautions.

  • In addition to the recommendations provided for general wildfire emergency preparedness, plan for how you will respond in ways that reduce the risks of COVID-19 transmission. 
    • Review CDC’s guidance on Going to a Public Disaster Shelter During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
      • Wear a cloth face covering/mask when around others.
      • Maintain physical distance from individuals who are not part of your immediate household.
      • Avoid contact with high-touch surfaces and use hand sanitizer frequently. 
      • If traveling in vehicles where social/physical distancing is not possible, take precautions such as wearing masks and sanitizing surfaces inside the vehicle. Set the air ventilation/air conditioning on non-recirculation mode.
    • Include hand sanitizer, face coverings/masks, and disinfecting wipes in your evacuation kit.
  • If you check on neighbors and friends before evacuating, stay at least 6 feet from others as much as possible and wear a mask. Avoid greeting your neighbors and friends with handshakes or hugs and avoid touching common surfaces (door handles, etc.). Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer immediately after interacting. 
  • If you feel sick when you arrive at the shelter or start to feel sick while sheltering, separate yourself from others and tell the shelter staff immediately.
  • Protect yourself and others while in a public shelter by practicing social distancing, washing your hands often, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding touching high-touch surfaces, keeping your living area clean, and disinfecting toys, cell phones, and other electronics.
  • Teach and reinforce everyday preventive actions for keeping children healthy

Stay informed about wildfire-related air quality risks

Additional Resources