Smoke is Not a Joke

Wild fires in the West have created some of the worst air quality of anywhere in the world right now. This isn't just an issue for children or people with pre-existing conditions, it's a health risk for everyone.

Clean air

Poor air quality in Boise, ID on September 16, 2020. Staff photo.
Poor air quality in Boise, ID on September 16, 2020. Staff photo.
Gina Werdel


Our Air Quality Index tip guide can be found here: Making Sense of the Air Quality Index 

The fire season this year has been undeniably horrible. In the last few weeks, millions of acres of land and hundreds of homes have burned in the West. As a result, smoke from the fires has spread all the way to the East Coast, and some Western cities currently have the worst air quality of any major metropolises worldwide

Living in Idaho, I’ve experienced this dangerous issue firsthand. Our air quality index (AQI) has ranged from a cautious “yellow” to an unhealthy “red” over the past month. In all my years living here, I’ve never seen such terrible air, especially not for this long. Simply put, it’s physically painful to spend time outside the house right now.

While the air is bad where I live, it isn’t even half as bad as many places in the West right now. In California, Oregon and Washington, people are being forced to contemplate what “beyond index” means for air quality, and how they are supposed to deal with it. (For those who haven’t heard that term, “beyond index” means that the air is so bad that the AQI is above the normal 0-500 scale.)

For Westerners, the air quality index is important to understand in order to make educated personal health decisions. But for some people, it might be confusing and hard to know what to do. That’s why U.S. PIRG has put together a guide to help people navigate this index and learn how it can affect their health.

At the beginning of this fire season, I definitely could have used some better advice on how to use the air quality index. I was a little lost as to what all the numbers and colors meant for myself. When the smoke began blanketing Idaho, I could tell the air was acrid, but I decided to exercise outside anyways. I figured, how bad can it be



I took this picture on Aug.19, right after I foolishly went for a three-mile run. This was the first day that the smoke rolled in from the California fires. The air quality was only “orange”, which means “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” I’m not part of a “sensitive group”, so I thought it would be fine. During previous fire seasons, I had always been able to ignore smoke in the air. But, I quickly realized that, this year, I couldn’t ignore it. I developed a headache that lasted for two days, my chest hurt, my eyes burned and my throat was scratchy. 

While these effects were uncomfortable, it could have been much worse. Poor air quality due to wildfire smoke can result in asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and higher susceptibility to lung infection (including COVID-19). In particular, those who work outdoors should consider the health effects of the smoke. I’m lucky; my work allows me to stay indoors when the AQI is orange or above. But others, who need to work or travel outside, don’t have the same benefit. Employers should consider these drastic health effects before they send employees outside. Poor air quality should not be taken lightly, by anyone. 

Our guide can help people to make informed decisions to protect their health. Because nobody should make the same mistakes I made in August.

For more detailed information on air quality, see the Environmental Protection Agency’s Guide to AQI and your Health.

For more detailed information for those with lung disease, heart conditions, or Diabetes, see the American Lung Association’s tips: Wildfires

For more detailed information about COVID-19 and wildfires, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tips: Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19


Gina Werdel