Austin’s COVID-19 and wildfire risk produce a potentially dangerous combination


(Getty Images)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With its stunning hills, rapid development, and often unbearable summer heat, the risk for wildfire in Austin is alarmingly high.

A 2018 report found that outside of California, there’s no metro area facing greater danger. Nationwide, Austin ranks fifth.

We’ve seen the devastating impacts before, most notably in 2011 on Labor Day Weekend when fires in Travis County burned more than 7,000 acres and destroyed 57 homes.

That same weekend in neighboring Bastrop County, wildfires consumed more than 340,000 acres, destroying 1,700 homes.

According to the Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Division, 61% of the structures in Austin and 67% of the structures in Travis County are in a wildfire danger zone.

With wildfires of this size comes the risk of hazardous air pollution.

After a series of wildfires blanked the West Coast in late summer, particulate matter from smoke reached hazardous levels, triggering a health warning of emergency conditions, likely to impact everyone who breathes it.

New research from Stanford University says that smoke can be attributed to up to 3,000 additional deaths among people 65 and older, most of whom already had underlying health conditions.

As we deal with the parallel COVID-19 emergency, health officials warn that smoke also weakens the immune system, increasing the chance of contracting an illness like the coronavirus.

So what should we do if we find ourselves in a similar situation here?

Aside from staying indoors, experts say an N95 mask and other NIOSH respirators rated for fine particulates are your best bet. Keep in mind though these are in short supply, and needed most by essential workers.

As for cloth masks, the Centers for Disease Control says they’re not effective at protecting people from wildfire smoke, as they are unable to catch the smaller particles.

Experts say the best way to protect yourself from breathing in these dangerous gasses is to shelter in place.

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