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Attention RVers: Beware the dangers of breathing smoke from wildfires

| Updated Aug 25, 2020

There is danger in breathing smoke from wildfires!

This is a horrendous year for wildfires. They are sweeping across huge areas of the west and as RVers drive from state to state, they face a real danger from breathing too much wildfire smoke. There are nearly 100 wildfires raging across California, Utah, Arizona, and California. The smoke from these wildfires blankets most of the US as far east as Kansas.

The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. Experts warn that these microscopic particles can enter your RV even when driving and they can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.

photo about dangrs of breathing wildfire smoke
Dense White Smoke Rising from a Raging Wildfire in California

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has sounded a strong alarm about smoke form wildfires.

Who is most at risk from breathing smoke from wildfires?

RVers, who may be driving through many areas in many states where wildfire smoke has lowered air quality,  should be particularly concerned if:

  • You have heart or lung disease – If you are affected by heart failure, angina, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, or asthma.
  • You are an older adult –  Seniors are more likely to have heart or lung disease than younger people.
  • You are caring for children, including teenagers –  Because their respiratory systems are still developing, kids breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of bodyweight than adults. They’re more likely to be active outdoors, and they’re more likely to have asthma. So observe them carefully for signs of difficulty in breathing
  • You have diabetes – Diabetics are more likely to have underlying cardiovascular disease which can be severely affected by inhaling smoke particles.
  • You are a pregnant woman – The dangers of breathing smoke from wildfires could cause potential health effects for both you and your baby.

What symptoms should you be looking for if exposed to lots of wildfire smoke?

The EPA says high concentrations of wildfire smoke can trigger a range of symptoms.

  • The first sign of breathing too much wildfire smoke is burning eyes, a runny nose, cough, congestion, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.
  • Smoke from wildfires may make the symptoms worse for those with heart or lung conditions
  • People with heart disease might experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, or fatigue due to the increased difficulty in breathing because of smoke from wildfires
  • Those who have lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply as normal.

None of these symptoms are good and you need to do all you can to avoid prolonged exposure to breathing smoke from wildfires. 

photo about breathing wildfire smoke
The danger from breathing wildfire smoke is from small particles that can get into your lungs

Being in an RV offers little protection from breathing smoke from wildfires

Have you ever driven through neighborhoods in your car during the fall when people are burning leaves? You instantly know when you are doing so because you smell the smoke. But as you keep breathing it you don't notice the smell quite so much. The smoke is still in the vehicle but you've gotten used to it.

It is the same in an RV. Smoke particles permeate an RV just as much as they do in a car. If you drive long enough in those conditions, you may not notice it. But the wildfire smoke is still in the RV. And you are still breathing in those fine particulates.

COVID Masks are not effective in filtering out smoke particles

Forget about the face masks most of us wear to stop the spread of COVID. Ordinary paper and dust masks, designed to filter out large particles, and cloth facial coverings will not stop you from inhaling smoke particles from wildfires. They still allow the more dangerous smaller particles to pass through.

The only masks that work in filtering out the damaging small particles we inhale when breathing smoke from wildfires are with an N-95 or N-100 filter. But these are extremely difficult to find because of the pandemic and are also challenging to fit for many users. 

How to minimize the risk of breathing smoke from wildfires

It's impossible to be completely safe from breathing smoke from wildfires when it is all around you. And not all people will be severely affected. But prolonged exposure will eventually affect everyone to one degree or another. So follow these suggestions:

  • Be aware of air quality through the areas you are traveling. An excellent resource is, which lets you lookup air quality by state, city or zip code. It also has information on wildfire smoke.
  • Read this fact sheet from the American Lung Association on how to protect lung health during wildfires
  • To be aware of the many dangers of breathing wildfire smoke, check out the U.S. publication Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Officials
  • It shouldn't have to be said but if you are in an area with a lot of wildfire smoke, do not exercise outdoors.
  • If you are not able to drive to an area outside the affected areas, do so, If not, try to find a hotel or the home of a friend or relative where you can stay inside as much as possible. Keep doors, windows, and fireplace dampers shut. Have clean air circulating through air conditioners and air cleaners. Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting to keep from pulling outside air into the room.

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Mike Wendland

Published on 2020-08-25

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

5 Responses to “Attention RVers: Beware the dangers of breathing smoke from wildfires”

August 25, 2020at1:13 pm, said:

If you live in the West wildfire smoke is becoming an annual occurrence. We try to leave the area now from September through November but being in the SF Bay Area you have to drive more than a few days East to get out of it. We have been inside with windows shut for over a week now due to the worst early fire season California has ever seen.

Campfire smoke is also a health concern. We were recently in Dinosaur National Monument campground with 90 degree evening temperatures and 75% of the campers had campfires going. Even with the windows and vents closed it was the worst night we spent in our RV. We’ve experienced similar at Yosemite. The campfire, Ike generator run time, rules will probably change at some point. Hopefully within our lifetimes.

August 25, 2020at12:23 pm, Ted said:

Can you comment on health risks related to wood campfires as this is also an issue with people with sensitive and compromised health though on a lesser scale – still a hindrance to camping for some.

August 25, 2020at9:52 am, Paula said:

Four major fires have been burning for weeks in Colorado too. We’ve had heavy dense smoke in the foothills and Denver for at least 10 days. Be careful out there.

August 25, 2020at9:06 am, Nancy E Jenkins said:

COMMENT: Even in BC and some of Alberta have wildfires happening. I do know when wind direction has changed and comes into my home. I get a ongoing cough with smoke but people back away thinking it is COVID-19.
People from Alberta that go into BC are getting their vehicles messed with. So my province has problems too.
QUESTION: How safe are propane tanks under a hedge? New neighbours have put propane tanks under some of my bushes even though wooden fence divides properties. I am afraid if lightening strikes. Been trimming up my side of bushes.

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