• A new report from meteorologists predicts that this year’s wildfire season will be particularly devastating in the west.
  • Over 75 percent of western states are experiencing drought-like conditions, which could fuel wildfire activity this summer.
  • Given the forecast, scientists say people living in the West and Southwest should start preparing now for a severe wildfire season.

It’s already looking as if the wildfire season this year will be particularly devastating in the west.

In a new report from Accuweather, meteorologists forecasted that the extremely dry conditions in western states could fuel dangerous fire conditions.

More than 75 percent of the western United States is experiencing drought-like conditions, setting the scene for an active wildfire season, according to the report.

Areas in the desert Southwest, such as Arizona and New Mexico, have experienced an unusually warm spring with minimal rainfall.

Meteorologists are also tracking conditions in the Pacific Northwest, where wildfire season typically ramps up in the summer, and California, where the worst of wildfire activity usually holds off until the fall.

Scientists who specialize in wildfires and their impact on our health say now is the time to start preparing for a dangerous wildfire season.

“Do everything you can now because if you wait until a fire is approaching, it is too late,” said Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center and professor of sociology at the University of Colorado (UC) Boulder.

Make a plan

According to Peek, the first step to prepare for wildfire season is developing a plan that addresses five P’s: people, pets, possessions, paperwork, and packing.

People: Start here. Touch base with the people you live with — family members, friends, roommates — and develop an evacuation plan. If you have kids, do a walkthrough of their room. “Have them make a list of what they would take if they had to leave quickly. Encourage kids to pack their own ‘go bags’ with possessions that are valuable to them as well,” said Peek.

Pets: Peek says animals are often left behind in wildfires, which can be “can be horrifying and traumatic for the human owners.” Include your pets in your evacuation plan. This is especially important for people with large animals, as the evacuation process can be complicated.

Possessions: Take photos of all of your belongings inside your house. If a wildfire does reach your house, you will have photos to file an insurance claim. Make a list of any items you want to take with you (whether photo albums, jewelry, or laptops).

Packing: Pack a to-go bag with the essentials — toiletries, an extra pair of eyeglasses, a change of clothes, a reminder to grab prescription medications.

Paperwork: Make photocopies of important documents, such as birth certificates, immunization records, or Social Security cards, and keep them in an emergency pack in case you have to evacuate. It can be challenging to get new copies of your documentation after it’s lost.

Get into the habit of checking air quality

Colleen Reid, an assistant professor of geography at UC Boulder who studies the intersection of wildfire and human health, recommends the website fire.airnow.gov.

You can zoom into your address and see what air quality monitors are saying about local air pollution caused by wildfire smoke. The site also shows where fires are actively burning and where smoke plumes are gathering.

When the air monitors are green or yellow, it’s OK for most people to be outside, said Reid.

“When they get to orange, people with any respiratory illness should consider not exercising outdoors, and when it gets to red or purple, everyone should take precautions (do not exercise outside, and stay indoors with windows and doors closed),” Reid said.

Reid also recommends a mobile app called Smoke Sense.

“It pulls in air quality index (AQI) data for your ZIP code and also has information on what you should do based on the AQI level where you are,” Reid said.

Adjust your AC settings and buy an air filter

“When homes are experiencing air pollution from wildfires, people should attempt to keep their homes closed and set the HVAC fan to run continuously,” said Marina Vance, an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering and environmental engineering program at UC Boulder.

Check your AC filter to ensure it’s not clogged from smokey conditions.

“If they can upgrade their filter to an electret filter, it will be more efficient and set it to fan always on,” said Shelly Miller, a professor of mechanical and environmental engineering at UC Boulder.

An air purifier is also a worthwhile investment. Look for a HEPA air cleaner that is certified by AHAM. Avoid ionizers or ozone generators, said Miller.

Vance also recommended buying a purifier with a high-quality filter that can be brought into the bedrooms at night.

“I do not recommend air cleaners that use bipolar ionization, as we don’t really know how well they work and whether they produce potentially harmful byproducts,” Vance said.

Get a protective mask

The cloth and surgical masks we wear for COVID-19 won’t provide the same kind of protection against the harmful pollutants in wildfire smoke, according to Reid.

Buy masks that filter the air.

“A well-fitted N95 will do a better job at protecting the wearer from air pollution outside, “ Reid said.

Protect your home

When it comes to protecting your home against wildfires, the most important thing isn’t what you can do within your home, but what you can do around it, Peek said.

“This includes taking actions such as removing dead vegetation and plants and trimming dead branches,” said Peek.

She also recommended moving firewood away from the house, along with any flammable materials. The gutters can also house materials that can fuel flames.

“Homeowners should always keep gutters and other outdoor spaces free of debris, as embers can ignite dry, dead materials,” Peek said.

Start preparing now

Wildfires spread fast, and in some cases, people have only a few hours — and in other cases, minutes — to grab their belongings and evacuate.

The most important tip, according to Peek, is to start preparing as soon as you can. “Those who lose everything in wildfires often lament that they didn’t back up their paperwork or digitize their photos or have a better plan in place for family reunification,” she said.

“Don’t let that be you. The time to prepare for disaster is always now,” Peek said.

The bottom line

A new report from meteorologists predicts that this year’s wildfire season will be particularly devastating in the west. Over 75 percent of western states are experiencing drought-like conditions, which could fuel wildfire activity later in the summer. Given the forecast, scientists say people living in the West or Southwest parts of the United States should start preparing for a severe wildfire season now.

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