13 Aug 2021
WildfiresStaying safe: wildfires abroad
Wildfires are unplanned fires in natural areas such as forests, grasslands or prairies. Wildfires are unpredictable, fast moving and can consume everything in their path. They may occur naturally (e.g ignited by lightning) or be caused by human activity. Risk of wildfire increases during extremely dry periods, droughts and when there are strong winds. Wildfires are seasonal in some countries, cause deterioration of air quality and disrupt transport, communications, gas, electricity and water supplies. They are also responsible for human fatalities and loss of animals, crops and property .
In addition to the danger of burns from wildfires, smoke exposure during wildfires can have health effects such as eye, skin, throat and lung irritation [2-5], cause inflammation and increase the likelihood of respiratory infections. Wildfires can impact on mental health and psychological wellbeing . Inhalation of fine particles, such as those in smoke can worsen existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) [5,6]. Inhalation of smoke has health implications for those most vulnerable to air pollution including children, older people, individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular or respiratory conditions and pregnant women .
Wildfires simultaneously impact weather and climate by releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter into the atmosphere, resulting in poor air quality . As well as immediate health effects associated with short term exposure to wildfire and smoke, wildfires which continue for extended periods of time could potentially lead to long term exposure to poor air quality. Long term exposure to poor air quality also impacts adversely on cardiovascular and respiratory conditions .
Due to the impact of climate change, the frequency of wildfires is rising . In recent years, extreme fire events have been reported worldwide and are increasing in some regions, with a corresponding rise in the number of fatalities .
Advice for travellers
If you must travel to a region affected by wildfire, be prepared; check Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office travel advice and follow any guidance provided.
If you have a pre-existing condition that makes you more vulnerable to the effects of smoke, discuss your travel plans with your healthcare provider. Travellers with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, such as asthma, should carry any necessary medication or inhalers with them at all times and seek medical advice if their symptoms worsen.
Check our Country Information pages for other health advice.
Get comprehensive travel health insurance that covers everything you plan to do and all your health conditions.
If you are in an area under a fire warning, get to safety and follow the instructions of local authorities. You might be advised to evacuate or shelter; if trapped, call the emergency services number for the country you are in and listen for emergency information and alerts .
Listen to news, weather and public announcements to learn about current evacuation orders . Follow the instructions of local officials or staff in public buildings about when and where to evacuate. Use designated evacuation routes and take only essential items with you.
Protect yourself from smoke
Pregnant women, children, older adults and people who are immunosuppressed or have heart and lung problems are at greatest risk from smoke .
- Check local air quality reports if available. Listen and watch for news or health warnings about smoke.
- Limit time outdoors and avoid strenuous physical activity. Only go outside when essential.
- Keep indoor air as clean as possible if advised to stay indoors, with windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. If you do not have air conditioning, due consideration must be given to heat stress during hot weather; if it is too hot to stay inside with closed windows, seek shelter in a designated evacuation centre or away from the affected area.
- In hot weather draw curtains and close blinds to limit direct sunlight heating up surfaces; use a fan to recirculate air within the house; wear light clothing; stay hydrated with cool drinks.
- Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution, such as using aerosol sprays, smoking, cooking, burning candles, fireplaces, gas, propane, wood-burning stoves or fireplaces. Vacuuming stirs up particles, contributing to indoor pollution .
- Follow your doctor/healthcare provider’s advice about medicines and existing heart or lung conditions. If you have medicines for these conditions, make sure you carry them with you at all times, and seek medical advice if your symptoms worsen.
- If you choose to use respiratory protection such as a facemask, you should make sure the mask fits well and you know how to wear it properly. Facemasks designed to filter particles are usually not effective for gases. When you wear respiratory protection, the effectiveness depends particularly on two factors:
- 1) how effective the mask or material is at filtering particles (stopping the smoke/ash particles from passing through the material); and
- 2) the fit of the mask or material to the face.
- A number of factors need to be considered if using of masks; those that are EU standards P2 or P3 (US standards N95 or N98) are most effective. Cloth/paper masks do not offer protection against smoke [2, 9-10]. Care should be taken to ensure that it is not harder to breathe when using any form of respiratory protection. People with existing respiratory or cardiovascular disease should talk to a health professional about whether facemasks are suitable.
- If you have to drive through smoke, keep windows closed and switch air conditioning to recycle or recirculate air.
- If your home is uncomfortable, and it is safe to do so, consider taking a break away from the smoke. Visit an unaffected area or visit a local air-conditioned building such as a library, community centre or shopping centre.
- Once the smoke has moved away, consider opening doors and windows to ventilate the property and allow the house to cool down.
- World Health Organization. Wildfires. 2021. [Accessed 9 August 2021]
- US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stay Safe During a Wildfire. 14 January 2021. [Accessed 9 August 2021]
- Hanninen OO, Salonen RO, Koistinen K, Lanki T, Barregard L, Jantunen M. Population exposure to fine particles and estimated excess mortality in Finland from an East European wildfire episode. Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology 2009 May;19(4):414-22. [Accessed 13 August 2021]
- Durán S. Evidence Review: Wildfire smoke and public health risk. Vancouver: British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, 2014.[Accessed 13 August 2021]
- Cascio WE. Wildland fire smoke and human health, Science of the Total Environment 624 (2018) 586–595, [Accessed 13 August 2021]
- Reid C, Brauer M, Johnston F et al. Critical review of health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure. Environ Health Pers.2016 Sep; 124(9):1334–1343. [Accessed 13 August 2021]
- Public Health England, Health matters: air pollution. 14 November 2018 [Accessed 13 August 2021]
- The Royal Society. Global trends in wildfire and its impacts. 2 October 2021. [Accessed 9 August 2021]
- US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. Wildfire smoke and COVID-19. 23 June 2021. [Accessed 13 August 2021]
- Environment Protection Authority Victoria, Smoke and your health. [Accessed 13 August 2021]