Prevent wildfire smoke from entering your home: It’s OK to run air conditioners

Deadly wildfires in Oregon and Washington are taking lives, destroying property and making the air dangerous to breathe.

Health experts are advising all residents to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary. Most non-medical grade masks won’t protect lungs from the fine particulates of wildfire smoke.

The National Weather Service has issued an air quality advisory for most of the western, central and southern parts of Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Conditions in Portland, which has the worst air quality of any major city, could improve on Monday, according to the National Weather Service. Until then, smoke, which is a mixture of air pollutants, and dense fog are thick enough to block out the view of the sun, but not the heat.

“The biggest question we have been getting is, ‘Should I run my air conditioner?’” says Rachel Smith of Pyramid Heating + Cooling in Portland. “Yes, you can run your A/C because it is not pulling air from outside. Just make sure to set the fan to ‘on,’ rather than ‘auto,’ to ensure the fan is constantly circulating and filtering air.”

If you have a fresh air system, turn it off until the smoke is cleared since it will draw in the polluted air from outside, she adds.

The Oregon Health Authority, American Lung Association and Smith of Pyramid Heating + Cooling recommend these steps to keep indoor air healthy:

  • Make sure all windows and doors are shut. Place damp towels under doors or in other crevices where polluted air might leak in.
  • Avoid indoor activities that increase indoor pollution, like smoking, burning candles and using a gas stove.
  • Refrain from doing activities that stir up dust already inside your home. Limit vacuuming unless your vacuum has a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
  • Check your heating filters daily due to the amount of wildfire smoke. You will need to change or clean them more often. Make sure you have the right size filter to ensure as many particulates as possible are being filtered and they are not going around the filter. Have backup filters ready.
  • If you have a central heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, set the fan to “on,” rather than “auto,” to make sure the fan is constantly circulating and filtering air.
  • If you have a fresh air system, turn it off while the wildfire smoke is in and around your area. Turn it back to on after the smoke has subsided.
  • A short-term solution to a rooftop HVAC is to turn the system off at the thermostat, or duct tape cardboard or a large trash bag over the economizer hood to prevent outside air from coming in, says Smith. “Make sure you remove this when the smoke has subsided,” she adds.
  • If you have a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) and energy recovery ventilator (ERV), unplug the unit where it is mounted. Make sure you plug it back in when the smoke is gone.

Tiny smoke particles stick to surfaces and embed in porous carpeting, furniture, books and even paint, according to experts at ServiceMaster, which specializes in restoring buildings after water, smoke or fire damage.

The company offers these tips to reducing smoke odor:

Wipe walls, ceilings, floors and other solid surfaces with a solution of dish soap, white vinegar and warm water to remove smoke particles. Smoke residue doesn’t stick to glass, but it does to window frames, sills, screens and blinds.

Sprinkle baking soda on upholstery and carpet, wait a few hours to allow it to absorb the smoke smell then collect the baking soda using a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Wash or dry clean curtains, area rugs, furniture covers, decorative cushions, duvets, blankets and any other affected fabrics. Use the manufacturer’s cleaning recommendations.

Store your clean items outside of your home until it is completely free of smoke odor.

To check the air quality in your area, visit Or visit the EPA’s air quality website,, and type in your city or ZIP code. View interactive maps at the state’s web page,, or the EPA’s web page,

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality also allows smartphone users to check air quality though an app that can be found by searching for “OregonAir” in the app store.

— Janet Eastman [email protected]; 503-294-4072; @janeteastman

— Grant Butler; [email protected]; 503-221-8566; @grantbutler

— Aimee Green; [email protected]; @o_aimee

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