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Staying safe as air gets smoky this fire season

A wall of smoke created by the Las Conchas Fire, which impacted the Los Alamos area in the summer 2011.
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A wall of smoke created by the Las Conchas Fire, which impacted the Los Alamos area in the summer 2011.

There are five major wildfires burning across New Mexico from Mora County in the north to Lincoln County in the south. As the air gets smoky, there are steps you can take to stay safe.

When the winds pick up, smoke from wildfires can travel great distances, putting residents otherwise out of harm’s way at risk for hazardous air quality.

Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, Alyssa Clements, says while Monday’s gusts were somewhat calmer, New Mexicans are not in the clear.

“We are looking at another very windy pattern upcoming this week,” she said. “So, air quality is certainly going to be a concern.”

Clements says limiting exposure by reducing the amount of time spent outside is key.

“Avoid exercising outdoors,” she said. “Maybe stay inside for the day, close your windows.”

While staying inside, the New Mexico Department of Health's Environmental Public Health Tracking program's website recommends not decreasing the quality of the indoor air with fragrances; things that create smoke like tobacco, fireplaces or candles; or vacuuming, which can stir up the particles.

As the summer sets in, the state says those with air conditioners should set them to recirculate the air and keep the filters clean. EPHT says swamp coolers are different and they shouldn’t be run at all due to the size of their filters’ holes.

In a statement released Friday, DOH recommended those with swamp coolers seek shelter where there’s AC when it’s too hot inside but too smokey outside, like at a library, community center or friend’s home.

And if you have to go outside? Clements says strap on a familiar tool during the pandemic.

“N95 masks [and] KN95 masks that a lot of people have now are great,” she said. “Those can help filter out those particles.”

The EPHT's 5-3-1 Visibility Method is one way to gauge how hazardous the air outside is. The lower the visibility is at the five-, three- and one-mile mark, the higher the risk. If you can only see landmarks one mile away, it's recommended you stay inside regardless of age or health status.

The program has developed a map toolfor residents to use to measure the various distances from their current location. You can also find daily updates on the air quality in your community here.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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