The 2018 California wildfires were brutal. More than 1.6 million acres of land were burned, and the state spent nearly $800 million fighting the fires. Sadly, these wildfires also claimed the lives of more than 100 people, and more than 250,000 others were ordered to evacuate their homes.
After living in parking lots, hotels and shelters for months, many northern California residents have finally been cleared to return to their wildfire-damaged residences. Unfortunately, some of their homes are uninhabitable in their present condition. If you’re planning to return home after a wildfire evacuation, here are some steps you can take to improve your indoor air quality.
1. BATHE REGULARLY
As of February 2019, California is still on fire even though it’s safe for some residents to return home. That means you’re exposed to harmful wildfire smoke when you’re outside, even if you live miles from the blazes. Wildfire smoke travels thousands of miles, resulting in beautiful sunsets for Midwest and East Coast residents but polluted outdoor air for folks in California.
This smoke settles on your clothes and body when you’re outside, then ends up on furniture or bedding in your home. Many of these smoke particles also float through the air in your home, creating new respiratory issues or triggering symptoms from existing medical conditions.
When you return from work, school or errands, bathe or shower as soon as possible. This helps reduce the amount of smoke particles you unintentionally distribute through your home.
2. WASH ALL BEDDING AND CLOTHES
Smoke particles love to hide in fabric. After an evacuation, it’s important to wash all of the bedding and clothing you left behind, even if it doesn’t look dirty or have an unpleasant odor.
You may have to wash some items, such as heavy comforters or thick sheets, a few times. If your clothing or bedding still smell like smoke after a few spins in the washing machine, replace them to protect your safety.
You should also wash or wipe down accessories. To help you get started, here is a list of clothing and accessories that you should clean:
- Sweat pants
- Yoga pants
- Work clothes
If you have items that are not on the list above, make sure you clean those as well. Here are some items that require cleaning in your bedroom:
- Fitted sheets
- Regular sheets
- Mattress covers
- Stuffed animals & Toys
Make a list of everything you’ve washed so that you can keep track of what you’ve accomplished. This makes it easier to figure out which items you still need to clean so you don’t overlook any of your personal possessions.
3. VACUUM EVERY CARPETED ROOM OF YOUR HOME
Smoke clings to carpeting long after a wildfire leaves your area. It’s important to clean your carpets often, daily if possible, with a powerful vacuum. Run the vacuum over upholstered furniture and mattresses as well.
Make sure you choose a vacuum with a HEPA filter. HEPA filters effectively grab at least 99.97 percent of particles measuring at least 0.3 microns. A traditional filter may leave many of these small particles behind, which means you’re still tracking them through your home and inhaling them through your air.
Empty your vacuum’s canister each time you vacuum. You don’t want to keep smoke particles in your home, even if they seem like they’re safely tucked away in your appliance.
4. CLEAN WITH A DAMP MOP OR CLOTH
Vacuuming removes smoke from your carpeted floors, but it also blows around some of the toxins in your home. After you vacuum, clean surrounding areas with a damp cloth and mop. This helps you pick up small particles that the vacuum missed or redistributed.
You should also wipe down your entire home from top to bottom when you first return from a wildfire evacuation. Grab your damp cloth and be sure to tackle the following areas and items during your cleaning spree:
- Pantry and cabinet doors
- Picture frames
- Home decor
- Small appliances, such as toasters and blenders
- Large appliances, such as washing machines and dryers
- Hardwood flooring
Make sure you use a damp cloth or mop when you clean rather than dry supplies. A damp cloth captures debris, but a dry one sends small particles back into the air. You may also want to consider wearing a NIOSH-certified respirator dust mask, which Ready.gov recommends, when you clean your home after a wildfire evacuation. This helps reduce the risk of inhaling smoke particles during the cleaning process.
5. RUN AN AIR PURIFIER
Air purifiers are a popular addition to many homes, but they’re especially beneficial after a wildfire. Air purifiers capture viruses, yeast, mold spores and other airborne particles so that you can breathe fresh, clean air in your home.
Ideally, you should choose an air purifier with a HEPA filter. The Environmental Protection Agency says most airborne wildfire particles measure between 0.4 and 0.7 microns. A HEPA filter traps particles that are at least 0.3 microns, so it can easily grab wildfire debris from the air in your home.
When you first get an air purifier, run it on high for at least one hour. The unit might be loud, but it will help you purify the air quickly. After the first hour, you can switch to a lower, quieter setting and run the purifier continuously. Air purifiers are designed to be used 24/7, not just occasionally, so make sure you keep yours running day and night.
6. CHANGE YOUR HVAC FILTER
You might change your HVAC filter according to the manufacturer’s recommendation, but that schedule no longer matters after a wildfire. Smoke clogs your HVAC filter, so your system has to work harder to heat or cool your home.
HVAC filters are designed to protect your heating and cooling unit, not you. However, they still capture airborne particles in an attempt to keep your HVAC system running smoothly. For that reason, replacing your HVAC filter will help improve your indoor air quality.
HEPA filters exist for HVAC systems, but you may not want to use one. HEPA furnace filters decrease air flow, so it’s more difficult for your HVAC system to function effectively. Instead of a HEPA filter, look for a medium-rated MERV filter. MERV stands for minimum efficiency reporting value and refers to a filter’s ability to trap airborne particles.
7. THROW AWAY EXPOSED FOOD AND MEDICATIONS
If you’ve got snacks or medication on your counters, get rid of them. It may look okay, but smoke can contaminate these items and you may get sick if you consume them.
This is true even if your items are wrapped or sealed. Smoke penetrates through many surfaces, so don’t risk your health. Make a list of medications that were left behind, and ask your doctor for replacements. Many police stations and hospitals have areas where you can safely dispose of damaged medication, so don’t just toss it in your trash can or flush it down the toilet.
Wildfires pollute the forests and cities that many of us call home, but they also affect indoor air quality. If you’ve recently experienced a wildfire in your area, clean your home carefully before you return for good. Wipe down everything you can’t put in a washing machine or dishwasher with a damp cloth, and throw away contaminated food and medications. Invest in a quality air purifier, replace your HVAC filter and upgrade to a vacuum with a HEPA filter if you don’t already have one.
These tasks are time-consuming, but they’re worth it. Wildfire smoke particles can make you very sick, so it’s important to clean your home and your belongings as well