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NM EPHT Environmental Exposures: Fire, Smoke and Your Health

Protect Your Health From Smoke During Wildfire Season, Forest Fires and Bosque Fires

Know How to Use the 5-3-1 Visibility Method to Protect Your Health from Smoke

Wildfires can spread rapidly giving only short notice to nearby residents and can quickly change air quality. The first thing to consider is protecting your and your family’s health from the hazards of smoke. You can decide if you should remain indoors or if it’s safe to go outdoors by taking a few easy actions, called the 5-3-1 Visibility Method. Step one is to determine how smoky it is based on how far you can see. This is an easy way to assess the air quality. Step two is to decide what you should do based on the quality of the air.

5-3-1 Smoke Visibility Method: Protect Your Health

How to Use 5-3-1 Visibility Method

Visibility is an easy way to decide if it’s okay to go outside. Using visibility and staying indoors when it is smoky outside is an easy way to protect your health.

If it is smoky outside find out how far away you can see.

First, decide if the visibility is closer to 5 miles, 3 miles or 1 mile.

  • How: Try the Visibility Mapping Tool to determine distances from where you are right now.  5-3-1 Mile Radius Buffer
  • Or pick a landmark you are familiar with and see if you can see it. Tips:Face away from the sun. Determine the limit of your visibility range by looking for objects at known distances (miles), such as a mountain, hill or a building. If these objects are not easy to see in these mile ranges, then the visibility can be low.

Then decide:

Is the visibility just under 5 miles? Is the visibility under 5 miles? If you can see less than 5 miles, the air quality is unhealthy for young children, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and people with heart and/or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness; they should minimize outdoor activity. These people should reschedule outdoor recreational activities for a day with better air quality. It is okay for adults in good health to be out and about but they should periodically check visibility especially when fires are nearby.

Is the visibility just about 3 miles? Is the visibility just about 3 miles? Young children, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and people with heart and/or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness should avoid all outdoor activities.  These people should stay indoors. All outdoor activities should be avoided, including running errands. Everyone else should try to stay indoors as much as possible. All outdoor recreational activities should be rescheduled for a day with better air quality.

Is the visibility about 1 mile? Is the visibility about 1 mile? If you can see less than 1 mile that means that the air quality is unhealthy for everyone. Everyone should remain indoors. Any outdoor activity should be avoided. If it is, air quality is very unhealthy. Everyone should avoid all outdoor activities. Unless an evacuation has been issued, you should stay inside your home or in a safe shelter. This is not a good time to run errands or be outside.

Regardless of the visibility, if you are feeling as though you are having health effects from smoke, take precautions to avoid exposure to smoke and see your doctor or other health professional as needed.

Since the southwest United States typically has very low humidity, visibility can be an effective tool to determine if it is healthy to be outside when smoke is present. The visibility test is not appropriate or effective in areas with high humidity, such as the southeastern United States, where water vapor (fog) may limit visibility.

The 5-3-1 Visibility Method: Protect Yourself From Smoke is a health campaign from the New Mexico Department of Health and its state and federal partners. 

What is the 5, 3, or 1-mile radius in your area?

5-3-1

Where are you?

Use this on-line map to draw a 5-3-1-mile radius buffer in the area you are at to estimate visibility

 5-3-1 Mile Map

Google Earth KML Version (2.1 KB)

On a smoky day can you see five miles away? Can you see three miles away or one mile away?

Look for landmarks such as mountains, mesas, hills, or buildings in those mile ranges to help you estimate visibility. If these objects are not easy to see in these mile ranges, then the visibility can be low. 

After you estimate visibility you can decide what you should do using the 5-3-1 guidelines above.


Examples of a five-mile radius in three New Mexico metro areas:

road

Albuquerque Metro Area Five Mile Radius (1.2 MB)

Las Cruces Five Mile Radius (1.1 MB)

Santa Fe Five Mile Radius (1.3 MB)



If the fire is nearby follow all precautions and instructions given by fire management authorities in the area. All evacuation orders by the sheriff and/or local fire authority should be followed and any recommendation to leave the area due to unhealthy air quality should be seriously considered. Learn more about smoke, fires and your home.

What else can you do?

Keep indoor air clean especially when you are advised to stay indoors and protect your lungs. Here are some tips for doing that:

  • If you cannot leave the smoky area, good ways to protect your lungs from wildfire smoke include staying indoors and reducing physical activity.
  • Keep windows and doors closed.
  • Avoid use of spray air fresheners (fragrances) and do not use electric fragrance dispensers.
  • Do not smoke, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air and avoid using vapor cigarettes.
  • Do not use anything that burns, such as candles, fireplaces, or gas stoves.
  • Do not vacuum because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home.
  • If you cool your home with a swamp cooler do not run it when the air is filled with smoke. Avoid using your swamp cooler when the smoke levels are higher than normal because most swamp coolers have filter pore sizes that are much too large to filter out particles from smoke. If it smells like your swamp cooler is bringing in smoke from the outside, it’s best to turn the unit off until the outside air quality improves.
  • If you use an air conditioner keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside and keep window covering closed. 
  • Do not rely on dust masks or wet handkerchiefs to protect your lungs. These will not filter out the fine particles from the air. It is better to stay inside when it is smoky outside and the visibility is low. 
  • Learn more about Staying Inside Your Home During Wildfires

What else can you do to protect your lungs?

Using visibility and staying indoors when it is smoky outside is an easy way to protect your health. If you must go outside, only certain masks may offer protection (i.e. N95, N100, P100) from wildfire smoke. These special masks are called a “particulate respirator”.

Learn how and which masks to use during fires. (520.3 KB)

Do not rely on dust masks or wet handkerchiefs to protect your lungs. These will not filter out the fine particles from the air. It is better to stay inside when it is smoky outside and the visibility is low.  (Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust.  These masks will not protect your lungs from smoke).

Swamp Coolers and Air Conditioners During Wildfires

Should you use your swamp cooler or the air conditioner in your car? Avoid using your swamp cooler when the smoke levels are higher than normal because most swamp coolers have filter pore sizes that are much too large to filter out particles from smoke. If it smells like your swamp cooler is bringing in smoke from the outside, it’s best to turn the unit off until the outside air quality improves. The same rule applies to automobile air-conditioning unless motorists use re-circulated air.

If it is extremely hot run an air conditioner (refrigerated air) if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside and keep window covering closed.

If you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed, seek shelter elsewhere such as at a cooling center or at a relative's or friend's home. During the day consider going to public libraries, senior center and other public places that may have air conditioning. Learn more about avoiding heat-related health problems (heat stress and heat stroke).  

Smoke and Your Health

Smoke is a complex mixture of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides, and metals. This mixture can irritate and even injure the mouth, nose, throat, and lung tissue. In healthy people, symptoms of smoke exposure usually include irritation of eyes, nose and throat or breathing discomfort. More severe symptoms may include chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing.

If you have asthma, a chronic lung disease, or cardiovascular disease, smoke exposure can aggravate these conditions. People with heart or lung disease should follow their health management plan from their health care provider. People with asthma should follow a prescribed asthma management plan. Follow your doctor's advice about medicines if you have asthma or another lung disease. In smoky conditions, if you develop symptoms which do not respond to your usual medication, see your health care provider immediately. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.

Prolonged exposure to smoke of all kinds is harmful to people of all ages. Like cigarette smoke, smoke from fires can eventually damage your body’s ability to remove large particles and excess phlegm from your lungs and airway. But, the healthy lung has a great ability to recover from the effects of smoke, provided there is time to recover.

How to tell if smoke is affecting you:

Smoke can cause:

  • Coughing
  • A scratchy throat
  • Irritated sinuses
  • Headaches
  • Stinging eyes
  • A runny nose
  • If you have heart or lung disease, smoke might make your symptoms worse.

People who have heart disease might experience:

  • Chest pain
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue

Smoke may worsen symptoms for people who have pre-existing respiratory conditions such as respiratory allergies,  asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), in the following ways:

  • Inability to breathe normally
  • Cough with or without mucus
  • Chest discomfort
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath

When smoke levels are high enough, even healthy people may experience some of these symptoms. When air quality is unhealthy (visibility  less than 3 miles), people in sensitive groups should avoid all outdoor activities. Everyone else should minimize outdoor activities.

Learn more about Asthma, Heart Health,  and Allergies.

Linkage Study: Health Outcomes Associated with Smoke Exposure in Albuquerque During 2011 Wallow Fire

Decision Making For Community, School, and Public Health Officials, and Event/Recreation Organizers

If you are a community leader, an event/sports organizer, or someone who serves a sensitive population you may be asking yourself some questions when it is smoky outside: Should that baseball or softball game continue? Should that golf tournament be rescheduled? Should school be held school or recess held indoors? Do I cancel my outdoor event? The health of the participants, students, athletes and spectators is something that should be considered during wildfires season and smoky days, especially if they are part of a sensitive population.

Use the 5-3-1 Mile Visibility Method above and the 5-3-1 Communications Toolkit to find recommended actions and resources you may use when it is smoky outside.