Though most of the Coachella Valley is not in what we consider the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), where brush fires threaten hillside homes, we can still be affected by smoke particles released into the air from those fires. This reminder was recently made very clear with the effects of Canadian wildfires on air quality in New England.

Our desert landscape is also changing, and fire possibilities are growing. Just take a drive throughout the valley or along the 10 freeway near the Morongo pass or the windmills. Areas that used to be mostly sand and desert scape are now full of thick grass and vegetation from recent rains. These areas can easily catch fire and spread to homes and different structures which can actually become the fuel, like vegetation, during a wildfire. Of course, this is even more of a threat with the strong winds we receive year-round in our valley.

Fires that burn to the west of us will also produce smoke and harmful particulate matter which settles in the valley. This matter is the main public health threat during short-term exposure to wildfire smoke, so it’s crucial to protect yourself.

Following are helpful tips:

  • If you can see or smell smoke, chances are there are hazardous particulate matter in the air, so consider staying inside.
  • Close all windows and doors; run your air conditioner if possible.
  • Avoid vigorous outdoor and indoor activity.
  • When smoke subsides, air out your home to clear any polluted matter that might be trapped inside.
  • Those with respiratory difficulties or heart problems, as well as the elderly and young children, should make an extra effort to remain indoors.

If you must go outside, consider wearing an N95 or P100 respirator mask which can effectively help protect against fine particles in smoke (stock up sooner than later!) Paper or surgical masks are not effective in preventing inhalation of smoke.

Remember, a car should only be used to leave an area, not as shelter. If you’re in a car, close the windows and doors and run the air conditioner making sure you’re circulating the air already in the car and not pulling in new, smoky air.

Fire Chief Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-year fire service veteran currently with the Verdugo Fire Academy training center in Los Angeles. He has lived in the Coachella Valley for over 25 years and can be reached at [email protected].

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