Fire, Ash, and Air Quality – A Timely Message from FunGuy Inspections

In the last week or so, California has experienced a significant wind event, coupled with low humidity and high temperatures – the perfect recipe for wildfires.  We’ve seen firsthand in the Los Angeles area how serious this threat can be, with approximately 6 wildfires that sprung up during the wind event, including the large Saddleridge fire in north LA, near Sylmar, Porter Ranch, and Granada Hills.  This fire claimed 2 lives, damaged or destroyed several dozen homes, has grown to more than 8,000 acres as of this writing, and is less than 50% contained.  

Despite a large amount of press attention surrounding pre-emptive public safety blackouts throughout the state, meant to help reduce wildfire risk, as well as the coverage of the fires themselves, too often there isn’t much talk about the related hazards presented during and after wildfires.  One of the biggest hazards, which can impact people miles and miles from the actual fire location, is the ash and other particulate matter that gets thrown up into the air for days or weeks.  This reduces air quality outdoors, as well as indoors, and can have serious health consequences for a large portion of the public.  

So, in light of those facts, we thought it would be a good time to discuss fire, ash, and air quality.  We’ll provide information on how fires reduce air quality, including indoor air quality, why that’s a problem, and offer advice on the steps you can take if you live in an area affected by smoke, ash, and particulates from a fire, to help maintain good indoor air quality.  Finally, we’ll highlight the services offered by FunGuy Inspections, which can help you to be better prepared for these kinds of fire impacts.

Fire Byproducts: Ash, Smoke, and Other Particulate Matter

It kind of goes without saying that the process of fire burning any kind of material gives off byproducts – heat, light, and smoke, to be specific.  Smoke is a complex mixture of combustion products, depending on the materials being consumed.  Usually, it contains a large amount of water vapor and other various gases, as well as particulate matter – the remnants of things being burned.  When this particulate matter is large and visible to the naked eye, it’s called ash.  But there’s also a lot of matter that isn’t visible to the naked eye that also gets suspended in the smoke, and travels with the winds and air flows.  

Whether it’s macroscopic ash or microscopic particulate matter, it can be made up of countless compounds and substances.  Everything the fire consumes is released, including both organic and inorganic compounds.  Carbon makes up a good portion of the ash, but all of the different substances present in trees, brush, grass, and all manmade materials consumed by the fire are either thrown into the air, or their combustion products are thrown into the air.  Either way, there’s a ton of particles of all sizes getting put into the air, and traveling downwind – often for tens or even hundreds of miles.  This can go on for days or weeks, as long as the fire burns and smolders.  

Why Smoke and Particles Lower Air Quality

Naturally, adding lots of different-sized particles of solid materials (as well as some volatile gases and even radioactive elements) into the air reduces air quality.  Normal air is made up of mostly nitrogen and oxygen, with various other trace gases, and this is what our bodies have evolved to breathe.  While we have some natural filters for macro-sized particulate matter (nasal hair, for instance), most of what gets put into the air by a fire remains suspended as you breathe in.  This ultimately deposits and traps those particles on your mucus membranes in your nose, mouth, throat, and in your lungs.  

Air Quality and Health

Your body doesn’t like particulate matter being put into your lungs and respiratory system, to say the least.  Even if the particles are relatively harmless elements themselves, and not radioactive, irritants, volatiles, or similar, they still don’t belong in your respiratory system.  Just as smoking causes lung and breathing problems, particulate matter in the air can cause several health reactions, mostly related to breathing and mucous membrane health/irritation.  These include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing, choking, and gagging
  • Runny or itchy nose
  • Dry, itchy, irritated, and/or watery eyes
  • Headaches
  • Sinus irritation
  • Fatigue

These health problems tend to be more severe in people who already have existing respiratory problems, are immune compromised, children, and the elderly.  In most people, symptoms tend to go away after the irritants are removed (once the air quality improves), though prolonged exposure can cause lasting damage.  Likewise, incidents of allergies, asthma, and similar symptoms triggered by fire-related air quality problems may develop into more serious, even life-threatening conditions on an acute time scale, such as respiratory failure, requiring emergency medical treatment.  

Advice for the Best Indoor Air Quality

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to maintain decent indoor air quality during and after a wildfire, and mitigate some of the problems and issues that poor air quality from a fire can cause.  These include:

  • Mind public air quality alerts, and stay indoors as much as possible during wildfire events.
  • Don’t open windows.  Instead, run your air conditioner.  If possible and the setting is available on your unit, use a re-circulate mode rather than fresh air intake mode.
  • Ensure you have functional air filters in your home heating and cooling system.  Likewise, be sure they are cleaned and/or replaced (depending on your system type) regularly.
  • Consider investing in high-quality HEPA filters.  Higher HEPA ratings filter out finer and finer particles in the air, including a lot of the materials the result from a fire.
  • Simple paper face masks are not terribly effective at helping with air quality issues (though can help with the smoke smell).  If you’re looking for added protection and considering a mask, look for one with a rating of N95 or higher.  For most people, however, these extreme measures are not necessary unless you must be out in the smoke for prolonged periods of time (such as first responders, who are usually provided these kinds of equipment in order to do their job).
  • When smoke isn’t an issue, do an inspection of the exterior of your home (or have an expert like FunGuy Inspections help), and identify and fix any holes, gaps, or other areas that can allow unfiltered outside air into your home.
  • Consider inspecting and replacing weather stripping, insulation, and seals around doors, windows, and vents.
  • Don’t burn incense, candles, or other items to try to “block out the smell” from the smoke, as this just puts more particulate matter into the air.  If you must, dab a little perfume or cologne, or a pleasant oil like lavender extract, onto one of those paper face masks.  This will last for hours, provide a better smell, and won’t contribute to poor air quality.  

Services from FunGuy Inspections

For several of our tips above, it might be helpful to have an inspection or consultation with FunGuy Inspections, rather than trying to do things yourself.  You don’t want to accidentally plug up important vent pipes or other openings in your home exterior, for example.  Often, you may not know where the trouble spots are that allow outside air into your home, or know whether your HVAC unit has a HEPA filter (and how effective it is).  You may be concerned about everyday indoor air quality, and how to maintain it during a wildfire or other air quality event.  

FunGuy Inspections can provide inspections, testing, and actionable advice to help you with this goal.  Using advanced equipment, and drawing on our experience and expertise, we can help you in your efforts to maintain good indoor air quality, and breathe a little bit easier.  To schedule a consultation or find out more about what we can do for you, visit our website at