Photo by Public Health Department, December 2017.
Photo by Public Health Department, December 2017.

Smoke Impact on Air Quality and Your Health in SLO County: Thomas Fire Update

Author: Public Health Department
Date: Friday, December 22, 2017 10:51 AM

Air quality currently ranges from good to moderate across SLO County. Smoke forecast models indicate air quality will remain in this range through next week.


At this time in San Luis Obispo County, smoke is visible in some areas from the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. The Public Health Department and the Air Pollution Control District are working in partnership to continuously assess air quality, to identify any potential health impacts and to inform the community about safeguarding individual health. 

The purpose of this update is to provide information about the current air quality as it relates to health, and to provide our current recommendations regarding protective measures. 

What are the conditions in SLO County? 
Current air quality in SLO County ranges from good to moderate, meaning air quality is acceptable and does not typically pose a health risk. Changing winds make it difficult to predict which areas of the county may be most affected. For current, detailed updates on air quality, and a forecast for the days ahead, visit the APCD Air Quality Index page

Why isn't the Public Health Department distributing N95 masks to the public?

The use of N95 masks (also known as respirators) as protection from smoke is only recommended by public health experts when air quality conditions reach an unhealthy level. Currently in SLO County, the air quality is not at an unhealthy level.

The Public Health Department is closely monitoring the situation and is prepared to distribute N95 masks if a health risk develops.

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has distributed masks because the air quality in their county was affected much more significantly and directly by the smoke and fires. 

What if I want to wear a mask anyway? Are they available anywhere in SLO County? Can I reuse a mask for several days?

Many stores in SLO County that had sold out of N95 masks have since received more shipments. Please check with your local retailer if you wish to obtain N95 masks. Note that N95 masks provide the most protection when they are properly fitted. These masks are designed for adults, but may fit a child if the child's face is comparable in size to a petite adult. Masks may be reused if they are dry and in good condition.

What if someone in my family is very sensitive to air quality?

The current conditions are not cause for health concern for most people. We recognize that some groups of people such as very young children, older adults, and people with serious underlying health conditions such as heart or lung disease may be especially sensitive to variations in air quality. People who are very sensitive to air quality will benefit from staying indoors.

Anyone who experiences shortness of breath, wheezing, exhaustion, light-headedness or chest pain should immediately stop any outdoor activity and contact their doctor. 

What if I see ash falling? Or if I smell smoke?

If you smell smoke or see a lot of falling ash, we recommend that you take common-sense precautions to avoid contact with ash and smoke. This includes:

  • Avoid strenuous outdoor activity
  • Remain indoors as much as possible
  • Set any heating/air conditioning/ventilation systems to recirculate

How can I safely clean up ash?

While SLO County has not experienced the ash fall of neighboring counties, conditions can change. If you see a lot of falling ash, stay indoors as much as possible and set your heat/air conditioning/ventilation to recirculate. If you need to clean up ash after it has stopped falling, remember to avoid skin contact with ash as much as possible (wear gloves and long sleeves) and avoid using leaf blowers or shop vacuums because they will stir dust into the air. For lightly dusted areas, use a damp cloth, a wet mop, or a vacuum with a HEPA filter. For more detail, see wildfires and your health

Can smoke or ash affect my pets?

Unhealthy air for humans is also unhealthy for pets. Outdoor domestic animals should be brought indoors, or inside a garage. Exposure to smoke and ash can cause eye irritation, coughing, and difficulty breathing for your pet. Call your veterinarian if your pet is having difficulty breathing or appears more tired than usual.

What if conditions change?

Air quality and the related health risk can change rapidly. The Air Pollution Control District is monitoring air quality hourly across SLO County, and the Public Health Department is closely following these results. If air quality becomes a health risk, we will alert the public to take precautions. If air quality reaches a point where it is helpful to wear N95 masks, we will alert the public. 

How often is air quality tested?

The Air Pollution Control District collects air quality data 24 hours per day, 7 days per week at nine permanent air monitoring stations located throughout the county and at temporary air monitoring sites set up in areas that may be most impacted.

Where can I get updates?  How can I check the air quality in my area?

For updates on current and forecasted air quality, visit www.slocleanair.org. To receive air quality alerts by text message, visit www.slocleanair.org/air-quality-alerts.php and sign up for Air Aware Alerts. You can also follow @slocleanair on Twitter.

For updates from the Public Health Department, visit www.slopublichealth.org, call (805) 788-2903 for a recorded information line, or follow @SLOPublicHealth on Twitter.