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Tips to cope with wildfires, from a former wildland firefighter


It's been a hazy few days for millions of Americans. Smoke from wildfires in Canada drifted south over the Midwest and Northeastern U.S. last week, blanketing the region. On social media, people posted apocalyptic photos of sunless orange skies and record-breaking air quality alerts. It's the first time many East Coast residents have experienced wildfire smoke, something that the West Coast already knows all too well. And as the effects of climate change worsen, there will be more days and weeks like this to come. To learn more about how to adapt to this new reality, we turn to Amanda Monthei. She worked as a wildland firefighter in the Western U.S. and hosts the podcast "Life With Fire." Welcome to the program.

AMANDA MONTHEI: Hi. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: What are some tactics that people could use at home to prepare for smoke in the future?

MONTHEI: Yeah, I think we do need to start approaching this issue across the country, regardless of if you're in the West or the East, with this idea that, yeah, this is going to continue to happen, and we need to move into this future of sort of adapting to that reality. The ways that we can adapt to that - I mean, we have a lot of experience with this with COVID and with creating these sort of clean air shelters and with filtering our air. And we can use a lot of those tools and a lot of those resources and a lot of those things that we had in place during COVID - we can use that to a similar advantage with wildfire smoke. And so you're cutting down on any drafts. You're cutting down on any opportunity for that smoky air to make it into your home. And then you're also - you know, ideally you have a forced air system or you have that HEPA filter availability where you can filter the air that's in your home, using N95 masks when you're outside, looking at the AQI for the day and ensuring that you're not going outside on those really high AQI days. And AQI means air quality index. And you can find this, I believe, on the weather app on your iPhone, or you can just Google it. That's a really important resource to be looking at pretty consistently when you're dealing with any smoke impacts.

RASCOE: There's also a mental element to this where it's really tough - right? - to get through fire season. It can be hard to have to deal with that, right?

MONTHEI: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. This can take weeks to months sometimes and even just a few days where you can't go outside and you can't do the things that you enjoy doing, and especially so if you have kids, and you're - you know, you have to, like, keep them locked up in the house to keep them away from the smoke impacts. It's really hard to know exactly how to deal with this. I think we're all kind of still managing and figuring out how we take care of ourselves during these events. But I think really taking care of your physical health is critical. That's a big step, is just feeling empowered to know that there is something that you can do, even if on the smallest scale, even if it's just buying a filter off of Amazon or, you know, ensuring that the filters that you have in your house and your systems are new and fresh for the next - hopefully not next bout of wildfire smoke.

RASCOE: Yeah. You're not powerless, is what you're saying.

MONTHEI: You're not powerless. Yeah.

RASCOE: You know, on your podcast, "Life With Fire," you've talked about how to approach fire, from fighting it to learning to live with it. What kinds of changes can be made as a country to manage this problem better?

MONTHEI: Absolutely. There are a lot of ways that we can manage this from the local level all the way up to the federal level. Encouraging communities to be more resilient to wildfire is one piece of this puzzle. And so starting at that community level, even at the individual level, we can do things like home hardening. We can do things like building defensible space. At the larger sort of landscape level, we can be doing these prescribed fires, thinning projects. But then there's also these sort of federal policies that we can be encouraging - more prescribed fire at that policy level. We can be supporting our wildland firefighters at that policy level, at that federal level, ensuring that these initiatives have the resources that they need, whether that's money or a workforce, and ensuring that the workforce especially is taken care of in this case. So looking into those things, advocating for those things, those are all really important steps here.

RASCOE: That's Amanda Monthei. She's a former wildlands firefighter and the creator of the "Life With Fire" podcast. Thank you so much for joining us.

MONTHEI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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