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Protect Your Health During Fires and On Smoky Days

Wildfires can spread rapidly giving only short notice to nearby residents and can quickly change air quality. Smoke from wildfires in neighboring regions and states could also impact your local air quality, although a fire could be far away. When these occur, the first thing to consider is protecting your and your family's health from the hazards of smoke. Using visibility is an easy way to gauge if it is okay to go outside. Simply staying indoors when it is smoky outside can help you protect your health when the air quality outside is poor.

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.

The 5-3-1 Visibility Method is a health campaign created by the New Mexico Department of Health Environmental Public Health Tracking Program and its locally-based state and federal partners specializing in air quality and wildfire management.
If it is smoky outside find out how far you can see.
First, decide if the visibility is closer to 5 miles, 3 miles or 1 mile. pick a landmark you are familiar with and see if you can see it. Facing away from the sun, 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 decide:

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? 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? If you can see less than 1 mile that means the air quality is unhealthy for everyone. People should remain indoors and avoid all outdoor activities including running errands. Unless an evacuation has been issued, stay inside your home, indoor workplace, or in a safe shelter.

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 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.
Where are you? NM EPHT created tool that helps you determine the visibility of landmarks by using your phone, computer or device. Use this on-line map to draw a 5-3-1-mile radius buffer to estimate the distance of landmarks that are visible from where you are standing.

Try the 5-3-1 Mile Buffer Map tool


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

Albuquerque Metro Area Five Mile Radius (1.2MB)

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.
Staying indoors and keeping the indoor air as clean as possible is the easiest way to protect your lungs when it is smoky outside

Here are 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), artificially scented household products, and do not use electric fragrance dispensers because these all add to poor air quality.
  • Do not smoke or use vapor cigarettes because these add to poor air quality.
  • 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 outdoor air is filled with smoke 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.

Guide for Operating HVACS During Smoke Days

Should you use your swamp cooler or the air conditioner in your car? It depends.

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).
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).
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.

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

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.
Smoke can cause:
  • Coughing
  • A scratchy throat
  • Irritated sinuses
  • Headaches
  • Stinging eyes
  • A runny nose
  • Headaches
  • 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 seasonal 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
Smoke exposure can aggravate conditions such as asthma, a chronic lung disease, or cardiovascular disease.
  • 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.
New Mexico offers great outdoor opportunities for fun and recreation throughout the year. However, during wildfire season the air quality can change rapidly leaving health, school, and community leaders to make quick decisions. Even when there is not a fire within New Mexico state line boundaries the air quality can be impacted by forests burning in neighboring states.

Be prepared to make decisions that will protect the health of the people in your community when forests, woodlands, grasslands and bosques catch fire and smoke travels into your community. 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.
Poor air quality from nearby fires can mean unhealthy conditions for the people participating in the activity you organize or sponsor outdoors. When it is smoky outside the health of the participants, students, athletes and spectators, especially if they are part of a sensitive population, should be considered when determining if the event or game you organize should continue.

If you:
  • provide services for sensitive populations (young children, senior citizens, people with certain health conditions)
  • organize outdoor community events
  • coach sports
  • manage recreation programs
  • make decisions for a school or daycare center
  • coordinate activities at a community center or senior center
  • guide fishing or outdoor adventures or excursions
  • manage a city, county, or tribal government or are a local official
  • manage a ranch, farm, or oversee outdoor labor

you need to make some quick decisions when it is smoky outside such as:
  • should that game go on?
  • should recess or playtime be done indoors?
  • should the tournament be rescheduled?
  • should that outdoor event be canceled?
  • should that outdoor adventure or fishing trip be postponed?
  • should work be done indoors?
  • should transport services for sensitive population be delayed until it is safe to outdoors?

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. You should use the 5-3-1 Visibility Method to make decisions.
The following are general recommendations for decision-making based on the age and health conditions of the people you serve and an estimation of quality of air based on the smoke visibility method.

Use the 5-3-1 Mile Visibility Method to make decisions especially if the people you serve are part of a sensitive population. Then educate and communicate with the people you serve.

If it is smoky outside find out how far you can see.
First, decide if the visibility is closer to 5 miles, 3 miles or 1 mile. pick a landmark you are familiar with and see if you can see it. Facing away from the sun, 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 decide:

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.

  • If your activity involves people from these groups you might consider moving your event indoors.
    • Try to keep the indoor air as clean as possible by not allowing use of air fresheners (fragrances), chemicals, cigarettes, vapor cigarettes or anything else that could compromise the air quality.
    • If it is warm, consider moving it into a place that is cooled with air conditioning (not swamp/evaporative coolers).
  • If you cannot move your event indoors, consider rescheduling it 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? If it is, air quality is unhealthy. Everyone should try to stay indoors as much as possible.

  • Move your event indoors or reschedule it.
    • Try to keep the indoor air as clean as possible by not allowing use of air fresheners (fragrances), chemicals, cigarettes, vapor cigarettes or anything else that could compromise the air quality.
    • If it is warm, consider moving it into a place that is cooled with air conditioning (not swamp/evaporative coolers).
  • 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 not be outdoors including going outside to get to your event even if your event was moved indoors. If your activity involves young children, adults age 65 and over, pregnant women, and people with heart and/or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness, reschedule your event for a day with better air quality.

Is the visibility about 1 mile? If you can see less than 1 mile that means the air quality is unhealthy for everyone. People should remain indoors and avoid all outdoor activities including driving, biking and walking. Unless an evacuation has been issued, people should stay inside their homes, indoor workplace, or in a safe shelter. Cancel or reschedule all events. Poor visibility outdoors means it could be dangerous for participants to drive to your event even if you move it indoors. Being outdoors including briefly walking outside could be unhealthy during this time.
As you postpone, reschedule, or cancel your event use communicate with members of your community and distribute the 5-3-1 Visibility message to them so they can make similar decisions for their families.

First consider using your local means of mass communication to let your community know of changes in the schedule. Let them know that these changes were done to protect their health. Common ways to communicate with you participates include phone trees, e-mail listserv, social media feeds such as an event page or a team page on Facebook, an announcement on Twitter and, using your local media such as the newspaper and radio station to disseminate your message. Direct your participants to nmfireinfo.com to learn about fires in the state and to nmtracking.org to learn how they can protect their health on smoky days.

Next, help educate your participants on how they can make decision during smoky days. The 5-3-1 Visibility Method is public campaign from the New Mexico Department of Health, Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, and its state and federal partners. You may print the following items and distribute them in our community, to your teams, and hang in your schools and workplaces,
  • Poster: Print and Post. Use this in areas frequented by general audiences. For example, near hiking trails, sports fields or community gathering areas.

    5-3-1 Smoke Visibility Method Poster (154.4 KB)

  • Patient Education: Print, Post and Distribute. Post this in senior and community centers, libraries, community gathering areas, schools, sports fields, and medical centers. This can also be distributed as part of patient education to sensitive populations or used in door-to-door education during wildfires.

    5-3-1 Visibility Method Bulletin and Patient Education Information Sheet (151.4 KB)

  • Quick Guide: Print and Distribute. The postcard sized guides can be printed double-sided and given out to all populations. Ask residents to keep it handy, such as posting it on their refrigerator, so they may be prepared and know what to do when it quickly becomes smoky outside.

    5-3-1 Visibility Method Card Guide (192.5 KB)
The NM EPHT Web site is supported by Cooperative Agreement Number 5 U38EH000949 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of CDC. Please use the following citation: " Retrieved Mon, 20 November 2017 19:27:30 from New Mexico EPHT Tracking Public Web site: https://nmtracking.org/ ".

Content updated: Thu, 22 Jun 2017 08:19:48 MDT