Wildfire Smoke Advice for New Yorkers, From a Bay Area Local Who’s Been Through It

New York City is experiencing something unprecedented due to the wildfires in Canada: horrifying air quality and blue-green skies prompted by billowing wildfire smoke. As I write this, the monitoring website Purple Air says that New York City, New York has an “unhealthy” Air Quality Index exceeding 170.

Welcome to our world, New York!

The San Francisco Bay area has suffered through several intense wildfire seasons, where air quality has degraded, smoke has been everywhere for days, and the sky has even turned orange.

I was there, and I’ve been through it. Based on three fire seasons here in the Bay area, here’s my advice for New Yorkers coping with the wildfire smoke.

Buy an Air Purifier STAT

Wildfire smoke isn’t just a nuisance; it’s also a significant health risk. The smoke consists not only of burned wood and debris but also of burned buildings, electrical equipment, and all the other stuff that the raging wildfire finds in its path. Lots of that stuff is toxic.

The small particulates in wildfire smoke can even get into the bloodstream and travel to the brain, making them incredibly dangerous both in the short term and over the long term.

The best defense is a good air purifier. The EPA recommends creating a clean room inside your house where you seal the doors as best you can and run an air purifier 24/7. Make sure to get a model with a HEPA or H13 filter.

I tested several models from Medify Air during the California wildfires, and they took my air quality from an AQI of 150, which is borderline dangerous, to 30, which is considered good. I was amazed by how well these HEPA purifiers work. You can often get one on Amazon and have it delivered within a day.

Wear an N95 Mask–Again

Before the pandemic, few people had ever heard of an N95 mask. Now, of course, we all know what they are, and most of us still have some sitting around the house.

These high-quality masks can filter out the tiny particles present in wildfire smoke. They won’t make things perfect, but they are much better than wearing nothing at all if you have to go out.

As with the pandemic, make sure your mask is in good shape and has a tight fit. It should cover your nose and mouth. Again, it won’t entirely eliminate the risk from smoke, but it’s a good step to take if you have to go outside.

Photographing Orange Skies

If you’re going to be stuck with horrifying air quality, the least you can do is share it on social media, right?

The challenge with photographing orange or yellow skies is that your phone will automatically adjust the photo to remove the color. What looks horrifying and apocalyptic in person will come out looking fairly boring on your phone.

This happens because iPhones and Android phones have automatic white balance settings built-in, which are designed to remove weird color casts from things like fluorescent lights.

The problem is that when they see an orange sky, the software assumes something must be wrong with its sensor and automatically adjusts the white balance to make the sky look more normal!

The solution is to take a photo with a DSLR or traditional camera or use the Pro settings on your phone, where you can often select a manual white balance setting to prevent the automatic changes.

Avoid Outdoor Activities and Exercise

In the face of crazy wildfire smoke, there’s often the temptation to try to go about life as normal – like going for a run in the park or eating outdoors with a friend.

Don’t do it! Smoke isn’t just a nuisance – it’s a huge health threat. Especially when you exercise, your breathing rate increases, making it even worse.

When the air quality dips, just stay inside. Cancel any activities that would have you out in the world, and wait for this to pass. Trust me, it will pass. It can feel awful and claustrophobic to be stuck inside during smoky days, but ultimately the sky will clear, and things will get better.

Advocate for Climate and Forest Management Policies

While you’re waiting for the smoke to clear, you can advocate for climate and forest management policies to reduce the risk of wildfire days in the future.

Thanks to a lot of proactive work in California, last year’s wildfire season had far fewer smoke days than in 2020 and 2021. Progress is possible, but it takes a lot of work and advocacy.

Contact your elected officials and let them know that this is a priority. No one wants to deal with wildfire smoke, but by working together, it is possible to ultimately improve the future.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.
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