How to Prepare for Forest Fire Smoke

Reedies hail from far and wide, and as climate change looms and natural disasters grow bigger and strike more frequently, it is important that every student is prepared for the most common natural disaster here in our home away from home: forest fires. While some students grew up preparing for hurricanes, others for tornados or earthquakes, the forest fires that have spread across the West Coast in the last few years are something that not even Oregon and California natives grew up preparing for. As Portland’s air quality starts to deteriorate and smoke starts creeping back into town, the Quest is here to help you prepare.

Understanding AQI

First, let’s start with some jargon. According to AirNow, a government website that partners with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Centers for Disease Control, and tribal, state, and local air quality agencies to create the U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI), normal healthy levels are below 50. Moderate AQI ranges from 51 to 100, and this can even be caused by smog and other daily air pollution in urban areas. 101 to 150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups such as people with asthma, respiratory issues, or general sensitivities to air pollutants. 151 to 200 is considered outright unhealthy, which can cause sensitive groups to experience more serious health issues, and members of the general public may also begin to experience adverse health effects (for example, last year during California’s wildfires, my eyes became so irritated by the smoke I had a rash around my tear ducts for two weeks). 201-300 is labeled as very unhealthy, and anything above 300 is considered hazardous (for reference, Portland experienced levels above 500 during last year’s wildfire season). Understanding AQI will help guide your decisions as you begin to take precautionary measures to protect yourself from wildfire smoke.

Benefits of N-95s

Your first level of protection is a face mask. N-95 entered Oregonian and Californian’s vocabularies a couple years before COVID hit as they act as your first level of defense against smoke and other pollutants and particulate matter in the air. There is no set lifespan or number of hours or days you can use an N-95 mask so use your own judgement. Don’t clear out BI-MART’s entire stock of N-95s, but also make sure that you have enough to last a few weeks so you aren’t scurrying to find masks once the smoke really hits (by then, stores tend to be sold out). Certain N-95s have vents which will protect you from both smoke and COVID, but do not protect those around you from COVID. N-95s without vents will protect you from both, while also preventing you from spreading COVID to others. N-95s will allow you to move around outside without worrying about the respiratory health issues created by wildfire smoke and air pollution.

Investing in an air purifier

For protection inside, consider investing in an air purifier with a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. Air purifiers with HEPA filters can be quite expensive, however, and typically range in price from $50 to $175 for purifiers that are equipped to filter air in a single room. The HEPA filter itself needs to be replaced approximately every six months, but sources vary and some recommend replacing the filter every two to three weeks when AQI levels are frequently high. HEPA filters typically cost $15. 

Financial aid for air purifiers

All of these costs can add up, but the Reed Emergency Fund may be able to help students who cannot afford an air purifier and filter replacements on their own. According to Reed’s Financial Aid website under “Emergency and other financial assistance,” “The Reed Emergency fund is a limited resource available to students who have short-term or one-time needs that are deemed immediately vital to the personal health or academic well-being of the student. Priority is given to students with financial need who have exhausted all forms of financial aid.” There is a form attached to the website for students to submit an application.

Making your own air purifier

For students that are unable to secure financial aid to cover the cost of a purifier, it is easy to build your own at home using a $10-15 box fan and a $15 HEPA filter. Simply tape a HEPA filter or secure it in some way to your box fan so that the air is pushed through the filter (air is also supposed to flow in one direction through the HEPA filter and there should be a label on the filter that specifies which direction). 

The director of the University of Michigan’s Sinus Center, Dr. Jeffrey E. Terrell, created a YouTube video comparing an $800 air purifier with a homemade purifier made with a box fan and HEPA filter. The $800 air purifier removed 100% of particles 0.3 microns or larger and the homemade filter removed about 90% of particles 0.3 microns or larger.


It is always good to be prepared for a natural disaster, and as we head further into fire season, it is important that every Reedie is equipped with the knowledge and equipment necessary to stay healthy and safe.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Related Stories


We would love your thoughts, please comment!x
%d bloggers like this: