Safety and first aid

Smoke hazards from bushfires

Smoke from bushfires and prescribed burns, also known as landscape fires, can cause a range of health effects, particularly in vulnerable people such as the elderly, young, and those with pre-existing illness.

If you are impacted by smoke haze you should try to reduce your exposure as much as possible. To reduce exposure to smoke:

  • Stay indoors and shut windows and doors – for people who are sensitive to smoke you should do this when you see or smell smoke.
  • Reduce physical activity - limit or forego any strenuous activity, particularly outdoor exercise, in order to reduce breathing in air pollutants
  • Use a room air cleaner – a high powered portable air cleaner (with a high-efficiency particular air (HEPA) filter) may improve the air quality indoors. Room air cleaners will provide the most protection when placed in a room where people spend most of their time. Make sure it is the correct size for the room
  • Use air conditioners and filters – only use air conditioners that circulate indoor air. DO NOT use evaporative air conditioners or air conditioners that draws air in from outside
  • Go to a clean air facility or public building with good indoor air quality - if your home is ‘leaky’ and smoke can easily get indoors, consider visiting a public building, such as an indoor shopping centre, public library, community centre or sports centre, where the outdoor air is filtered. Only do this if it is safe to travel.
  • Use respiratory protection – if you must venture outdoors wear a P1 or P2/N95 face mask that has a tight seal around the mouth and nose and can filter airborne contaminants. Read more information about masks below
  • Keep hydrated - drink plenty of water
  • Anyone with an urgent smoke-related health condition should seek medical attention by dialling 000. People with other medical conditions or who are feeling unwell due to the smoke impact are advised to contact their GP or healthdirect on 1800 022 222.

If smoke is likely to last for a long time (more than a couple of days), or becomes particularly heavy, you may need to consider temporarily relocating, if you can and if it is safe to do so.

Check the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (external site) air quality webpage for updated hourly air quality (fine particulates – PM2.5) concentrations and the latest health advice

Health hazards from landscape fires

Bushfires can cause considerable damage to land and property, as well as the loss of human life. Apart from the immediate loss of life from the fire, exposure to the smoke generated from bush, and other, fires can cause a number of health problems, even at low levels of smoke pollution.

Smoke contains a large number of contaminants, including small and large particles and toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Large particles in bushfire smoke irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. The finer particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and are more harmful. Health effects include:

  • irritation of the eyes, nose and throat
  • triggering breathing and/or heart conditions that may require ED attendance or hospitalisation.
  • in some cases, it may even be a contributing cause of premature death.

Other health hazards from bushfires include extreme heat, physical injuries such as burns, heat stress and dehydration.

Who is at most risk of harm from bushfire smoke?

Those at greatest risk of harm from bushfire smoke are:

  • people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or allergies,
  • people with chronic heart diseases, such as coronary heart disease and high blood pressure,
  • people with diabetes,
  • children,
  • the elderly, and
  • pregnant women, as there is some evidence that exposure can affect the unborn child

Everyone has a different response to smoke – some people will tolerate a lot of smoke, while others will not tolerate even a little smoke. Individuals with underlying health problems will be most sensitive to smoke.

You should listen to your body and if you experience symptoms, try to reduce your exposure to smoke.

If you suffer from heart or lung problems, make sure you have your treatment plans and medications available. If you are aware of nearby fires keep checking the DWER air quality and Emergency Services websites for updates on air pollution levels and fire emergency advise.

What are the signs and symptoms of smoke exposure?

The gases and fine particles produced during a bushfire can make existing respiratory diseases worse, causing:

  • difficulty breathing
  • coughing
  • chest tightness.

People with heart disease may experience:

  • chest pain and tightness
  • palpitations
  • difficulty breathing
  • fatigue.

People with diabetes may experience:

  • hypoglycaemia.

When smoke levels are high, even healthy people may experience some of these symptoms.

Most people recover quickly from smoke exposure, particularly if they are moved to fresh air, and do not suffer long-term health effects.

Do masks protect me from smoke?

P2 masks are not recommended for general community use.

The use of P2 masks should be limited to:

  • vulnerable people including those with significant health issues.
  • people whose only option is to work outside
  • people returning to their properties in burned areas.

Wherever possible, people should avoid smoke by staying indoors with the windows and doors shut and avoiding vigorous exercise outdoors. P2 masks can help protect against smoke but will only do so if used properly. It is harder to breathe with a mask so you want to minimise your time wearing a mask

For further information please refer to the fact sheet Masks and Smoke from Bushfires (PDF 89KB).

Bushfire smoke alerts

For the latest fire alerts and warnings, call the Department of Fire and Emergency Services on 1300 657 209 or visit the Department of Fire and Emergency Services website (external site).

The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (BDCA) issues a smoke alert when smoke from prescribed burning or bushfires may affect people in towns and communities, or restrict visibility for motorists. Visit the  DBCA (external site) for the latest information on prescribed burns.

Hourly updates on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are posted on the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) air quality page (external site). These are accompanied with health advice

Smoke haze tracking study

The Department of Health is interested in knowing the extent to which smoke from landscape fires (bushfires and planned burns) is observed. We are conducting a study about smoke in Perth and the SouthWest.

People are often adversely affected by smoke from landscape fires but we do not know the extent of the problem.

Using the Airtracker app (external site) the Department are hoping to track where smoke is observed and if this is causing any health problems.

If you live in Perth or the South West and you want to participate in the smoke tracking study, download the app onto your mobile phone. This is done by using your internet browser and going to the Airtracker (external site).

Read the Smoke tracking study user guide (PDF 440KB) for details on how to use the app.

Where to get help

If you experience worsening of your asthma that does not respond to usual measures, or you experience new breathing problems or chest pain, get medical help.

Last reviewed: 12-11-2021

Environmental Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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