Safety and first aid

Smoke hazards from bushfires

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

If you see or smell smoke haze, you should try to reduce your exposure as much as possible by using one or more of the strategies below.

  • Stay indoors and shut windows and doors – it is best to stay indoors until the outdoor air quality improves, especially if you are sensitive to smoke.
  • Use reverse cycle air conditioners or fans – only use air conditioners that circulate indoor air such as a reverse cycle air-conditioner. DO NOT use evaporative air conditioners or air conditioners that draw air in from outside.
  • Use a portable air cleaner – a high powered portable air cleaner/purifier, with a high efficiency particulate 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.
  • Go to another building or stay somewhere else 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. If smoke lasts for a few days stay at alternative accommodation such as a friend or family’s home or hotel. Only do this if it is safe to travel.
  • Wear a face mask – 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.
  • Avoid outdoor physical activity –­ limit or forego any strenuous activity, particularly if you develop symptoms like cough or shortness of breath.
  • Seek help if feeling unwell – If you are concerned about symptoms call healthdirect on 1800 022 222. If you or anyone in your care has trouble breathing or tightness in the chest, call 000 for an ambulance. or see your doctor.
  • Check on the elderly – make sure your elderly neighbours are ok if safe to do so.

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.

Hourly air quality updates

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 bushfires

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
  • 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 fire, keep checking the Department of Water and Environmental Regulations (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?

If you are using a mask, make sure it is suitable. Simple paper or cloth face masks do not provide protection from smoke particles. Specialised P2 masks can help protect against smoke but will only do so if used properly. This means there needs to be an air-tight seal between the mask and your face to stop fine particles from entering into the breathing space. This can be difficult to achieve.

It is harder to breathe with a mask, so you want to minimise your time wearing one. Also, if you have a pre-existing heart or lung condition you should seek advice from your doctor about 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

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: 05-10-2023

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.

Link to HealthyWA Facebook page