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Wildfires Are Back in California. Here's What to Do Now

Masks from the pandemic may be effective against smoke, but only some and only temporarily

Thankfully, the COVID vaccine is allowing us to get out of the house and to resume many of our normal activities.  At the same time, we are facing a significant drought, already wildfires are blazing in Northern and Southern California, and as we get deeper into the season, many experts fear this could be one of the worst years on record. How will this affect our lives and what can we do to protect ourselves and our community?

malaika stoll headshot 2sq
Malaika Stoll, M.D.

Poor air quality from wildfires may be a reason to hold on to some of your masks, even as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Cloth masks will not protect you from smoke inhalation, but N95 masks can be helpful for short periods of time. However, no mask will fully protect you from prolonged smoke exposure. To reduce the risk of smoke inhalation, its best to stay inside if its smoky outside. 

In addition to limiting smoke exposure, here are a few tips: 

  • Be informed. To learn about the air quality around you, Air Now is helpful as is the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
  • Be prepared.  No one wants to think about evacuation, but some basic preparation, just in case, is important. Be sure that if you take medications you have them filled and on hand. Those with asthma may need to use more of their prescribed “rescue” inhalers when the air quality is poor.
  • Get vaccinated.  Protecting yourself against COVID, the Flu and other communicable diseases is important during wildfire season because these illnesses make people more vulnerable to smoke-related complications. To find a free COVID vaccine near you, go to the My Turn website.
  • Get help. If you are having difficulty breathing, or are experiencing other serious symptoms, seek medical attention right away. For those with asthma and certain other conditions, and for older adults and younger children, even brief exposure to smoke can be serious.
  • Access care remotely. If you or a family member needs medical care, most physicians are now seeing patients through video or telephone visits. Call your family physician to learn how to access care conveniently and safely. Blue Shield members can also get care through Teladoc. Visit Blue Shield's Teladoc site, or download the Blue Shield of California app on your smart phone to sign up for the service. 
  • Help each other. It is normal to be worried by what is happening around us. Calling friends and family, or pulling together donations for fire-relief efforts, are ways that we can work together to help our community and to reduce stress. Consider the Red Cross or CalFund.

Malaika Stoll, M.D., is senior medical director for Blue Shield of California. She leads a team of medical directors and clinicians who work with local providers to ensure Blue Shield members have access to quality, affordable care.