Air Quality & Wildfire Smoke

hazy and smoky hills

Smoke from wildfires in Northern California may contribute to poor air quality in the Bay Area.

Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a scratchy throat, and irritated eyes and sinuses. Substances released from fires far away, while very unlikely to cause any significant health hazards, can contribute to headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Elevated particulate matter in the air can trigger shortness of breath and/or wheezing in those who suffer from asthma, emphysema, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

For most people, the conditions in the Bay Area become unpleasant rather than dangerous. However, elderly persons, children, and individuals with respiratory illnesses are particularly susceptible to elevated air pollution levels and should take extra precautions to avoid exposure.

Health Information 

Before a Smoke Event / Ways to Prepare

  • Stay informed by signing up for alerts from Warnme, Cal Fire, your city or county, your local air quality district, or your local public health department.
  • Weatherize your home in preparation for wildfires by replacing or refurbishing old leaky windows and doors; use caulking to seal the openings.
  • Consider purchasing a non-ozone-producing air purifier (HEPA) to create a cleaner air room in your room or home. Choose a room with no fireplace and as few windows and doors as possible, such as a bedroom.
  • If you have your own home, consider purchasing a MERV 13 or greater filter for your HVAC system to be used when experiencing a heavy smoke event. Consider upgrading to an HVAC system that allows for both heating and cooling. Be sure it includes a mechanism to switch to“recirculate” to prevent smoke from entering the space.
  • Create a personal, family, or group emergency plan, gather emergency supplies, and be ready to evacuate. 
  • If possible, check in with your supervisor if AQI exceeds 150.  

Wildfire Smoke Symptoms 

  • Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from burning vegetation, building materials, and other materials. Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick. Even someone healthy can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air. Breathing in smoke can have immediate health effects, including: 

    • Coughing
    • Trouble breathing normally
    • Stinging eyes
    • A scratchy throat
    • Runny nose
    • Irritated sinuses
    • Wheezing and shortness of breath
    • Chest pain
    • Headaches
    • An asthma attack
    • Tiredness
    • Fast heartbeat
  • Older adults, pregnant women, children, and people with preexisting respiratory and heart conditions may be more likely to get sick if they breathe in wildfire smoke.   

Individuals with Health Conditions 

  • Elderly persons, pregnant individuals, children, and individuals with heart or lung conditions are particularly susceptible to elevated air pollution levels and should take extra precautions to avoid exposure.
  • Elevated particulate matter in the air can trigger wheezing in those who suffer from asthma, emphysema, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), or other respiratory conditions. People with respiratory conditions should talk to their physicians to develop a personal plan for dealing with smoke, including keeping extra medications/inhalers on hand, having an active asthma action plan, and considering whether to include an N95 respirator mask in their emergency preparedness kit (see below).  

Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19

  • We encourage you to see your medical provider if you experience wildfire smoke-related symptoms. Note that the risk of COVID-19 complications can potentially increase with poor air quality.
  • See the USDA Wildfires and COVID-19 Fact Sheet for additional information. 

During a Smoke Event / Tips

  • Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing cough, a dry scratchy throat, runny nose, trouble breathing, and irritated sinuses. Stay hydrated by drinking water during heavy smoke events.  
  • Stay inside with the doors and windows closed, in your “clean room” with a HEPA filter if you have one. Seek shelter elsewhere if you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed.
  • Do not add to indoor air pollution by burning candles or using gas, propane, wood-burning stoves, fireplaces, or aerosol sprays. Do not fry or broil food, smoke cigarettes, or vacuum. All of these can increase air pollution indoors.
  • Take it easier during smoky times to reduce how much smoke you inhale. If it looks or smells smoky outside, avoid strenuous activities such as going for a run.
  • Know your air quality. Stay tuned to local media for changes in smoke or weather conditions. Bay Area information can be found at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and EPA Air Now websites.
  • Long-term smoke events usually have periods when the air is better. When air quality improves, even temporarily, air out your home to reduce indoor air pollution, and step outside yourself when you have a chance!   

Smoke Inhalation When You are near a Fire

What is smoke inhalation? 

Smoke inhalation is when you breathe in harmful smoke from burning materials and gases. Harmful smoke experienced up close, such as in a burning building, may contain chemicals or poisons, such as carbon monoxide and cyanide. When you inhale this harmful smoke, your lungs and airway may become irritated, swollen, and blocked. The damaged airway and lungs prevent oxygen from getting into your blood, and respiratory failure may develop. Respiratory failure means you cannot breathe well enough to get oxygen to the cells of your body. 

What causes smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation most commonly happens when you get trapped inside a burning structure, such as a house, office building, or factory. The harmful chemicals found in smoke may come from burning rubber, melamine, coal, plastic, or electrical wiring. Smoke inhalation may also happen if you are near a burning forest. The highest concentrations of harmful chemicals often occur after the main fire, when a building or wood is smoldering.  

What are the signs and symptoms of smoke inhalation? 

The signs and symptoms of smoke inhalation depend on the source of the smoke and how long you were exposed to the smoke:

  • Airway burns, causing throat pain, hoarse voice, and noisy breathing.  Patients with severe airway burns almost always have burns to the face and head, or severe burns elsewhere on the body.  It is more common for smoke to cause mild throat irritation, which is not a sign of a significant burn to the airway.
  • Chest pain or cough
  • Shortness of breath, in particular in asthmatics and others prone to bronchospasm
  • Headache, abdominal pain, and nausea
  • Eye irritation or vision problems
  • Fainting 
  • Soot in your nostrils or throat

How is smoke inhalation diagnosed? 

Caregivers will ask you about the source of the smoke that you inhaled. They will also ask about the amount of time that you were exposed to the smoke. You may need further testing including blood tests, chest X-ray, bronchoscopy, or pulmonary function testing if your exposure was significant.

How is smoke inhalation treated? 

  • Antidotes: These are substances that may stop or control the effects of the smoke you inhale. Caregivers may give different antidotes depending on the type of smoke you inhale.
  • Bronchodilators: You may need bronchodilators like albuterol to help open the air passages in your lungs, and help you breathe more easily.
  • Steroids: Steroid medicine may help to open your air passages so you can breathe more easily.
  • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.
  • Medicines to treat pain, swelling, or fever. 

What are the risks of smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation can be a serious injury, and evaluation and treatment is needed as soon as possible. If it is not treated early, the smoke may damage your lungs and cause breathing problems, and in the worst cases may lead to respiratory failure. This may affect your heart and brain, and it may be life-threatening. 

How can smoke inhalation be prevented?

  • To prevent fires, make sure that electrical wiring, chimneys, wood stoves, and space heaters are working properly. Use flammable liquids safely and store them in a locked area out of the reach of children. 
  • Do not leave lit cigarettes unattended, and discard them properly. Keep cigarette lighters and matches in a safe place where children cannot reach them.
  • Make an escape plan in case a fire breaks out in your home. Practice it often with your family. Crawl on the floor to escape a burning building. The air will be cooler and cleaner.
  • Use smoke detectors in your house, and check them regularly to make sure they are working. 

What if I must be outside?

  • First, RECONSIDER: The only way to completely avoid potential health risks from both chemicals and particulates found in smoke is to avoid exposure. If you MUST be active outside in smoky areas, take steps to limit your time and level of activity outdoors. Consider the use of a particulate respirator such as an N-95 to filter out some of the particulate matter. These masks do not filter harmful chemicals found in smoke and are proven to provide protection only if individually fitted by a trained technician, but can provide limited particulate filtration and comfort for those sensitive to the smoke.  

  • Please be aware that wearing respirators can not only feel claustrophobic but can provide a false sense of security and cause harm if you rely on them for protection while continuing with regular activities. They also increase the work of breathing which can be dangerous for those with underlying heart or lung disease.
  • Note that simple 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 the small particles found in a wildfire. 

  • Students with asthma and other underlying medical conditions that put them at high risk of adverse effects and who are currently experiencing symptoms related to air quality can be assessed, treated, and receive respirators with instruction at UHS, while supplies last. However, UHS strongly recommends that students, faculty, or staff in these high-risk categories, and any who know they are sensitive to smoke, discuss the risks/benefits of N95 respirators with their physician beforehand, and consider purchasing one for personal use before an event occurs, as part of their emergency kit.

What should I do if I feel ill?

  • Minor symptoms such as irritated eyes and throat, nausea, headache, and mild cough are best treated by staying indoors and standard measures such as hydration, steam, ginger/lemon, and analgesics like acetaminophen.  However, those experiencing significant respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, persistent cough, or wheezing should seek care immediately. 
  • Students who are unsure whether they need to come in or where they should go can call the UHS Advice Line at (510) 643-7197; when UHS is closed, the Advice Nurse Line is answered by our After Hours referral line. Students may also call the 24/7 Nurseline at (800) 681-4065.
  • UHS Primary and Urgent Care staff can assess and treat minor symptoms related to smoke inhalation including asthma exacerbations requiring inhalation treatments. See hours of operation. 
  • Faculty/Staff should contact their physician or go to the nearest emergency room.
  • See also general information about smoke inhalation injury.

Campus Information 

Cleaner Air Shelters 

Facilities Services has identified various campus buildings that could be considered "Cleaner Air Shelters" from the standpoint of HVAC filter efficiency. These buildings feature better filtration systems that can provide some relief from smoke particulates:

  • Lawrence Hall of Science
  • East Asian Library
  • Gardner Stacks 
  • Moffitt Library
  • VLSB
  • Berkeley Way West
  • Crossroads Dining
  • Campus Shared Services (4th Street)  

Other Buildings WITH Mechanical Ventilation Filtration Systems 

Region 1

  • Bechtel
  • Blum
  • Cory
  • Davis
  • Etcheverry
  • Hearst Mining
  • Hesse
  • Jacobs
  • McCone
  • McLaughlin
  • North Gate
  • O'Brien
  • Soda
  • Sutardja Dai
  • Woo Hon Fai
  • Art Museum
  • 1893 LeRoy
  • 2481/3 Hearst
  • 2607 Hearst

Region 2

  • Banway Building on Bancroft Way
  • Birge
  • Bowditch Street
  • Calvin Lab
  • Campbell
  • Channing Way
  • Faculty Club
  • Giauque
  • Gilman
  • Hildebrand
  • Latimer
  • Physics North & South
  • Lewis
  • Minor Addition
  • Minor Hall
  • Pimentel
  • Tan
  • University Way
  • Women's Faculty
  • Wurster
  • 1608 Fourth Street
  • 2425 Atherton Street
  • 2537 Haste Street
  • 2850 Telegraph

Region 3

  • California
  • Bancroft Library
  • Doe Library
  • Doe Stacks
  • Doe Annex
  • Gardner Stacks
  • Donner
  • Durant
  • Dwinelle
  • East Asian Library
  • Evans
  • Haviland
  • Moffitt
  • South
  • Stanley
  • University House
  • Wheeler

Region 4

  • Anthony
  • Social Sciences Building
  • The Law Building
  • Cheit
  • Chou
  • Haas Faculty
  • Haas Student
  • Hargrove Music Library
  • Hearst Field Annex
  • Hearst Memorial Gym
  • Hertz
  • Anthropology & Art Practice
  • Morrison
  • Philosophy
  • Piedmont
  • Sather Tower
  • Simon
  • Sproul
  • Stephens
  • 2251 College 

Region 5

  • Barker
  • Berkeley Way West
  • Innovative Genomics Institute
  • Genetics & Plant Biology
  • Giannini
  • Hilgard
  • Koshland
  • Li Ka Shing
  • Morgan
  • Mulford
  • North West Animal
  • Warren
  • Wellman
  • Wellman Trailers
  • 1990 Oxford 

Region 6

  • Alumni House
  • CA Memorial Stadium
  • Central Heating Plant
  • Chavez
  • Eshleman
  • Greek Theatre
  • Haas Clubhouse
  • Haas Pavilion
  • Hazardous Materials Facility
  • Lawrence Hall of Science
  • Weill
  • MLK Student Union
  • Math Science Research Institute
  • Recreational Sports
  • Silver Annex
  • Silver Lab Addition
  • Tang Center
  • Valley Life Sciences Building
  • Zellerbach
  • 2401 Bancroft Way

RSSP Buildings 

  • Crossroads Dining
  • Residential Student Services building  
  • Café 3 Dining
  • Clark Kerr Dining

Buildings WITHOUT Mechanical Ventilation Filtration Systems 

  • Botanical Garden Bathrooms
  • 2222 Piedmont Ave.
  • Center for Digital Archaeology
  • Study of Demography
  • 2234 Piedmont Ave.
  • Center for the Study of Law and Society
  • 2334 Bowditch St.
  • Fox Cottage
  • 2515 Channing Way
  • Anna Head Alumni Hall Building E
  • Anna Head Alumni Hall Building C
  • 2547 Channing Way
  • A & E Building
  • Anna Head Alumni Hall Building A
  • Anna Head Alumni Hall Building B
  • Anthony Hall
  • Bancroft Dance Studio
  • Dwinelle Annex
  • East Gate Kiosk
  • Goldman School of Public Policy
  • Greek Bowl Seating
  • Greek Ticket Office
  • Haas Clubhouse
  • Jane Grey Greenhouse
  • Insectary Greenhouse
  • Julia Morgan Hall
  • Faculty Club
  • Sather Tower (The Campanile)
  • South Hall
  • Strawberry Canyon Center
  • University House
  • University House Garage
  • University House Greenhouse
  • West Gate Kiosk
  • Women's Faculty Club

RSSP Buildings

  • Unit 1 - Towers
  • Unit 2 - Towers
  • Unit 3 - Towers
  • Foothill Suites
  • Clark Kerr 

Campus Resources 

Additional Resources