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Hazardous Air Quality from Wildfires Sparks Demand for Respiratory Protection

EH&S News, Industrial Hygiene, NES Safety Topic

Written by: Virginia McCormick, NES, Inc.

Hazardous Air Quality from Wildfires Sparks Demand for Respiratory Protection
The November 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, California has created hazardous air quality throughout the state, causing many to seek suitable methods of respiratory protection.


Hazardous Air Quality & Respiratory Protection

Reported as one of the deadliest, most destructive wildfires in California’s history, the Camp Fire raged on between November 8 and November 25, 2018. The fire not only brought with it a massive amount of loss, but also posed a serious health concern for the surrounding areas in the form of hazardous air quality.

Californians were inundated with reports of high levels of air pollution. Statewide air quality was reported as reaching decade-long highs of particulate matter that were equated to levels of air quality in India or China, both of which are regularly reported as having some of the worst air qualities in the world.

The communities surrounding Butte County were the hardest hit in terms of hazardous air quality, but those same smoke inhalation hazards stretched on throughout Sacramento and the Bay Area.


As shown in the archival data above, a significant portion of northern California was suffering from unhealthy, very unhealthy, or hazardous air quality on November 16, 2018.


Residents were advised to stay indoors as much as they could in order to limit their levels of smoke inhalation. The hazardous air quality caused widespread concerns, both for workers and citizens, and ultimately sparked a high demand for respiratory protection.

To learn more about smoke inhalation hazards, see the October 2017 NES blog post California Wildfires and Smoke Inhalation Hazards.

As respiratory protection demands grew, some Californians found support in city programs, while others attempted to purchase protection methods online or in local stores. Overwhelmingly, the demand was for N95 respirator masks.

Many workers and citizens had difficulties finding N95 masks, as stores reported selling out quickly due to the high demand. Those who attempted to purchase respirator masks through online retailers faced challenges as well. Package deliveries in Northern California —which may have included mask purchases—were delayed when an Amazon fulfillment center outpost in Sacramento closed due to poor air quality.


Sacramento Area Mask Distribution

On November 11, the city of Sacramento began a program to distribute free N95 respirator masks to concerned citizens. Sacramento’s Director of Emergency Management, Daniel Bowers, stated in a press release that the N95 masks would be available at most Sacramento fire stations.

N95 Respirator Mask
Sacramento area fire stations began giving out free N95 masks to the concerned public in November as a response to the demand for respiratory protection; this was discontinued just a few days later. 


Sacramento County released a statement on the same day that not only advised residents to limit outdoor activities, but also cautioned the use of those respirator masks, stating that “prolonged use of N95 respirator mask can exacerbate symptoms in those with respiratory problems.” A statement from the Sacramento County Public Health Officer corroborated this assertion, stating that use of the N95 respirator masks for city residents was not recommended to the public due to increased heart and respiratory rates, improper facial fits, and carbon dioxide buildup inside the masks themselves.

By November 15, the city of Sacramento announced that mask distribution at city fire stations would be stopped. The statement cited an inability to obtain additional masks from distribution outlets. Overall, the program was reported as handing out approximately 67,000 masks to concerned citizens.

Read about the award-winning community and worker health & safety plan that NES developed after the 2007 Angora Fire near South Lake Tahoe and how that plan was later implemented in Southern California to a larger degree.


Hazardous Air Quality: Protecting Workers & Citizens

Wildfires are becoming a more common reality for Californians, as reported by NPR. As such, workers and citizens will only become more concerned with the hazardous air quality protections available to them as time goes on. There are several ways you can protect yourself when it comes to poor air quality caused by wildfire smoke:

  • Stay indoors, with doors and windows closed, as much as possible
  • Minimize outdoor activities if you can see or smell smoke, even if you are healthy
  • Research local programs that monitor air quality, such as
  • Pay close attention to governmental guidance and public service announcements regarding ongoing smoke levels impacting your region
  • Do not rely on dust or surgical masks for protection, as those masks only trap large particles and will not protect you from smoke inhalation
  • Use an indoor air filter inside your home or business
  • Contact your doctor if you have symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms you believe to be caused by smoke inhalation
  • Those with asthma or other health conditions should follow their management plan, as directed by their doctor, and should limit outdoor activity
  • Children, pregnant citizens, the elderly, and people with respiratory or heart conditions are all particularly susceptible, and are recommended to seek medical attention for any air quality related questions or concerns

See the Wildfire Smoke section on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for more information on how you can protect your health around wildfire smoke.


Regulating Workers’ Hazardous Air Quality Exposure

Workers can pose a uniquely significant challenge when it comes to respiratory protection, as they are often required to be exposed to outdoor conditions. Fortunately, there are regulated ways that a worker can seek respiratory protection during poor air quality days.

The use of respirators by workers generally must be under a comprehensive, OSHA-compliant Respiratory Protection Program. Both the California Code of Regulations, Title 8, §5144 (8 CCR 5144) and the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, §1910.134 (29 CFR 1910.134) address the standards an employer must implement to maintain a compliant program.

According to the standards, employers whose workers may need respiratory protection are required to develop and implement a written respiratory protection program prior to the respirator use. These programs not only train workers on how to properly use, clean, and store their respirators, but also ensure that respirator use is safe and appropriate for them by requiring a medical evaluation and fit test.

However, under Cal/OSHA Title 8 CCR, Section 5144, workers in California may request the voluntarily use of an N95 mask or other disposable filtering respirators. In this case, employers must provide the workers with Appendix D of Title 8 CCR, Section 5144, and Appendix D of Title 29 CFR, Section 1910.134. The employer must still conduct medical evaluations and establish procedures for cleaning, storing, and maintaining respirators.

Employers are encouraged to consult the regulations in greater detail for the full scope of requirements.

OSHA QuickCard Respirators
This OSHA QuickCard briefly explains the common respirators that workers may be expected or required to wear when encountering hazardous air quality. The above QuickCard can be downloaded here.


N95 VS P100: What’s in a Mask Type

The most common form of respiratory mask protection that was sought out during the November bout of hazardous air quality in California was the N95 mask. According to the CDC, the N95 mask is also “the most common of the seven types of particulate filtering facepiece respirators.

The N95 mask is not the only form of respiratory protection available to those concerned about hazardous air quality. Several other forms are available, including the P100 mask. Masks come in a variety of ratings that are used to determine which mask can provide the best level of protection for the wearer, depending on the environment.

It is important to note that if the letter rating or number rating increases, breathing will often become more difficult for the wearer. A wearer will usually find the N95 mask to be easier to breath through and cooler than a P95 or P100 mask. When choosing a mask, it is recommended to find a balance between the level of protection you require versus the ease of breathing needed for your task rather than choosing a higher rated mask for every situation.


CDC Respirator Filter Classes
Different masks provide different levels of protection against hazardous air quality. Make sure to choose the right one for your level of protection. The above safety poster can be downloaded here.


In most situations, an N95 or P100 respirator mask will be suitable. The more important things to remember are to make sure that your mask fits well, to limit outdoor exposure in general during poor air quality days, and to seek medical attention if you start feeling the symptoms of smoke inhalation.


Concerned About Hazardous Air Quality?

NES has been providing EH&S and industrial hygiene services on behalf of a wide array of public and private businesses and government agencies for the past 30 years. If you have questions regarding air quality monitoring, inhalation hazards, and/or remediation safety oversight for wildfire cleanup operations, please contact NES at 916-353-2360 / 800-637-2384 or via email at



The Washington Post Article: The deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California’s history has finally been contained

SF Gate Article: Amazon fulfillment center in Sacramento closed due to smoke; packages delayed

Sacramento Bee Article: Sacramento to give residents masks due to poor air quality

Sacramento County Article: Wildfire Smoke Statement Extended

Sacramento City Express Article: City’s Mask-Distribution Program Nears Its Conclusion

Sacramento County Department of Health Services Public Health Division Statement

NPR Article: Why Fires Are Becoming California’s New Reality

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Natural Disasters and Severe Weather

8 CCR 5144

29 CFR 1910.134

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: NIOSH-Approved N95 Particulate Filtering Facepiece Respirators