There’s a week of hot, dry weather headed our way. Not just our way, in fact, but to the entire west. Parts of the country are already struggling through a heatwave, and high temperatures are likely to arrive in Washington around Thursday. That doesn’t just mean lovely weather for a picnic; it also means prime conditions for major wildfires and a nice thick blanket of smoke descending over the city. (And into your lungs.)
Now that smoke and fire are a normal yearly feature of Washington summers, we’re all going to have to get better at preparing for them — preferably before the smoke arrives and you can’t get the supplies you need because all the idiots (non-Stranger readers) waited until the last minute and cleaned out the local hardware store’s shelves. (Side note: Here's what you should do once the air is actually bad.)
So, first things first: Do those DIY air filters, the ones where you buy a cheap box fan and attach a HEPA filter to it, actually work? Yyyyyyyeah, kind of, but there’s a lot of ways to screw them up. Here are four things you should be doing right now to make sure you’ll be ready in time, plus one bonus thing to be pissed about:
Stock up. When the air gets bad, you’ll want to reduce your outside-time as much as possible. Eliminate the need for errands by stockpiling essentials, like nonperishable food (that you’ll actually eat, not a can of green beans that will sit on your shelf until it expires). Get your prescriptions refilled, and your pets’ if possible.
Seal yourself in. Get ready to block off windows and doors to the extent that you can. I’ve found the easiest way to do this is to get one of those super-cheap kits with transparent film and adhesive — they don’t last long, but they’re quick to install and easy to take down once you’re ready to open the window again.
Clean your air. The best way to keep your indoor air healthy is to get a proper air filtering machine — after years of trying to hack various cheap solutions, I broke down and got a $100 Coway gizmo that can just run continuously. But if you want to save a few bucks, follow these instructions for building one yourself. Just be aware that there are a lot of ways it can fail: You need to be careful about making a tight seal; you shouldn’t run it while you’re sleeping or out of the house; you have to be sure you’re getting the right kind of filter, etc etc etc.
Check the air quality — and now, for the first time, the forecast. The state’s smoke blog just introduced a forecast map, predicting how clear or how toxic the air will be over the next few days. For now, it only goes two days out, but they’re planning to extend it as far as five days within the next week. As of now, the outlook is pretty clear; but obviously that could change as more fires appear.
Stop being poor. The shitty reality of fire season is that people who are marginalized — for a variety of reasons, including economically — are at heightened risk. A lot of the Washington Department of Health’s advice for staying safe assumes that you have the option of going inside, but “reschedule outdoor events” isn’t great advice if you live outdoors. Last year, King County and Seattle opened clean air shelters for people experiencing homelessness; the city confirmed to me in an email that they'll planning to do the same this year. I’ve reached out to the county and state to see what their plans are for 2021, and will update this piece if I hear anything back.