This year was the largest wildfire season recorded in California history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection—an unfortunate trend throughout the American West. And many in the U.S. Forest Service say people should get used to longer and more severe fire seasons in the future. That’s why learning more robust wildfire safety tips is essential for protecting your health in the workplace.
Here are five tips to help keep you safe from wildfires and the resulting poor air quality while in the field:
#1: Wear a mask, and wear it correctly.
The most widespread impact that wildfires have on health is due to poor air quality from smoke. Wildfire smoke irritates the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Staying inside and limiting physical activities are the most effective ways to protect yourself from wildfire smoke, but that’s often impossible for those working on a rig. That’s why masks—which filter out smoke’s harmful particulate matter—are crucial to have on hand. But remember: A poorly fitting mask provides almost no protection. Here are some tips for picking out a good mask, and using it effectively:
- Get an N95 mask. If one isn’t available, make sure you have a mask made of a plastic material, with two straps that go around your head. Paper or cloth masks do not provide protection against wildfire smoke.
- Throw away your mask when it’s damaged, or if the inside gets dirty.
- A mask should fit snugly over your nose and under your chin. If you have a beard, consider trimming it down. Masks work best on a clean-shaven face.
- Use the metal part of the mask to pinch over your nose for a tight seal to your face.
- One strap should be below your ears, and one above.
#2: Be aware of your surroundings.
You should always stick to your designated work area, but this is particularly important during wildfire season. If you’ve been evacuated to a safer location, try to stay indoors where the effects of smoke are mitigated. If you’re passing through a smoky area in a vehicle, close the windows and run the air conditioner, making sure you’re circulating the air already in the car and not pulling in exterior air.
#3: Know the Emergency Action Plan for your crew.
Many companies have developed evacuation plans for their crew in the event of a fire at or around the site. These plans often include a chain of command, evacuation procedures, and equipment for personnel. By knowing your site’s procedures, you’ll know where to go and how to get there if a fire encroaches on your worksite.
#4: Sign up for alerts in your area.
The most obvious, but perhaps most important thing you can do to protect yourself from wildfire is to know where the fires are burning. Even if you’re the kind of person who turns off all of your notifications, consider that an alert lets you know about changes in fire location in real time. There are several ways to get alerts:
- Download the FEMA app and get alerts from the National Weather Service for up to five locations, nationwide.
- Sign up for community alerts in your area.
- Be aware of the Emergency Alert System, which broadcasts emergency messages over television and radio, requiring no sign up.
- Download the AirNow or IQAir AirVisual apps, which report on the air quality in your area.
#5: Be aware of wildlife.
Abnormalities in our environment often change the behavior of wildlife in ways that can be dangerous for humans. Here are two animals whose behaviour can present safety issues for humans during wildfire season:
- Rattlesnakes: These carnivorous reptiles often come out when the temperatures begin to warm in March through September, but the heat from wildfires can often drive them out, as well. It’s most common to get bitten on the hands, feet or ankles. The most important thing to remember is to avoid tall grass, look at your feet when walking, and never put your hands in places you can’t see.
- Bears: Wildfires can displace bears, often into the path of humans. If you see a bear, don’t feed them, keep your food in a secure place, and dispose of your garbage properly. Only use bear spray as a last resort.
Though the threat of wildfire is here to stay, with a little preparedness you can reduce the impacts to your health—both on the job and at home.
- “California Wildfires,” Sacramento Bee
- About AirNow
- “How to Keep Yourself Safe from Wildfire Smoke”, SCPR
- “Think this fire season is bad? ‘This isn’t the worst of it,” LA Times
- United States Department of Labor, “Wildfires”
- Wildfire Smoke and Face Masks, Washington State Department of Health