I was five months pregnant when the bushfire smoke finally drifted into Melbourne. The fires had been burning in neighboring states for months, starting in September 2019. As a native Minnesotan, I’ve lived through those hazy summer days where the sun is masked and the skies are grey from wildfires in the American and Canadian west. This was nothing like that.
Even in my brand-new apartment, well-sealed and well-ventilated, you could smell the smoke. I didn’t leave home for days. I began checking the EPA Victoria’s Twitter feed compulsively, praying to see green in the air quality forecast. It was the same with the weather app on my phone, as I hoped for rain in the east where fires were unfurling across the landscape pushed by the wind and fueled by brush in the understory. On the morning of January 14, 2020, Melbourne’s air quality was rated as the worst in the world.
The scale of the 2019 – 2020 Australian bushfire season, now known as “Black Summer” is difficult to comprehend. Thirty-three people lost their lives. More than 3,000 homes were destroyed. Three billion animals were killed or displaced. By March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the globe, the fires had burned more than 19 million hectares of land — an area about the size of the state of Nebraska.
Wildfire Smoke and Health
As someone who has worked on air quality issues throughout my career, I knew it was important to stay inside as the smoke hung over Melbourne.
Wildfire smoke, and smoke from wood burning, can be extremely harmful to the lungs. The tiny particles found in wildfire smoke can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, and even strokes. Children, older adults, and those with asthma, other respiratory conditions, COPD, heart disease and pregnant women are most at risk.
Research has shown that prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke can also increase the risk of pregnancy complications — things like gestational diabetes, low birth weight, and premature birth.
As I doom-scrolled within the four walls of my apartment, an article from The Conversation stated, “A 2019 study of more than 500,000 pregnant women from Colorado looked at the effect of bushfire smoke on pregnancy outcomes. The study found PM2.5 due to bushfire smoke was linked to spikes in premature birth, especially in women exposed during the second trimester.”
I was smack dab in the middle of my second trimester. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty vulnerable and freaked out.
Preparing for Fire Season
One of the many depressing things about climate change is that it is influencing fire seasons around the world. As the number of hot and dry days increase, the wildfire seasons expand. Fires are burning longer, larger, and more intensely. Extreme wildfire events are also shifting to places where they do not normally occur, like tropical and temperate rainforests. Even as we take steps to address the climate crisis, extreme fire events will be with us for quite some time.
Today marks the start of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2021 Air Quality Awareness Week. In that spirit, here are three things you can do to avoid the doom-scroll and prepare for wildfire smoke events that may occur this summer:
- Check Your Air Quality Forecast – Download the EPA’s AirNow app. The app displays the current Air Quality Index for your area and any area you wish to check. Many weather apps also have air quality information included.
- Stay Inside – If air quality is poor due to wildfire smoke, stay indoors with the doors and windows closed. Run your air conditioner with the fresh air intake closed, if possible. This helps keep smoke from getting indoors. If your home isn’t equipped with air conditioning and it’s too hot to close the windows, seek shelter elsewhere.
- Mask Up – By now, we’re all getting pretty good at this (thanks COVID-19), but not all masks are created equal. An N-95 mask, or reusable mask with a PM 2.5 filter provides more protection against the fine particles found in wood smoke. If you have to venture outdoors during a wildfire smoke event, wear your mask.
For more tips, the American Lung Association has an excellent resource, particularly for those at higher risk.
Stay healthy, stay safe, and watch this space for more information. We’ll be sharing updates all week about our collaborative air quality work and ways to get involved. You can also join the conversation and help us share Air Quality Awareness Week information by following Environmental Initiative and #AQAW2021 on your social media channels.
Emily (Franklin) Haley is a freelance strategic communications and engagement practitioner. She served as Environmental Initiative’s Communications Director from 2012 – 2017. She’s recently returned to the Twin Cities with her husband Chris and daughter Eleanor after three years of living and working in Melbourne, Australia.