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Healthcare professionals warning cloth masks do not provide effective protection from smoke and ash during a wildfire

Cloth Mask
Two unidentified people wear cloth face coverings during a gathering in Paso Robles on Friday morning. (Dave Alley/KEYT)

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- A handful of wildfires burned several hundred acres of land around the Central Coast over the past several days.

While there was no major structural damage, each one of the fires posed a physical danger to people who might have been around them.

Smoke from the fires, particularly the Avila Fire on Monday, generated unhealthy air quality.

"Smoke, particulate size matter, is less than one micron, so very small particles that can enter your lungs easily without the proper mask," said ​​​​​Stephen Szabo, Cardio-Pulminary and Respiratory Service Director of Tenet Health Central Coast.

Szabo, along with other local healthcare professions, want to make sure the public is properly equipped to handle any future wildfire event.

The are warning people to not rely on any cloth or other face coverings that are not made to filter out fire-generated particles.

"There's a lot of masks out there because of the COVID pandemic," said Szabo. "We've all seen them. Most commonly are face masks that are used. Unfortunately, these are used for splash and droplet safety, so they probably won't be very effected against the fine particles that come off of a burning fire."

Szabo adds the best protection from dangerous particulate matter is an N95 mask.

"N95's are commercially the highest rating for common folks to buy," said Szabo. "They're rated to 95 percent particulate filtration. They're going to filter down to .3 microns, that's smaller than a piece of talcum powder, and they will do a good job of protecting your airways."

He stresses there is a good reason to make sure the lungs are protected.

"Our respiratory track is very fragile," said Szabo. "It's made with certain protective measures, but they aren't fool proof, so the smaller the particulate size, the easier it is to drift down into your lungs. Once they get into your lungs, they can cause irritation, infection, swelling, that makes your breathing difficult."

San Luis Obispo Public Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein also mentioned how important it is for people to use the correct masks around wildfire while speaking Wednesday at the county's weekly COVID-19 press conference.

"People should not have that level of security, especially when wearing either a surgical face mask or a cloth face covering," said Borenstein. "It is not believed to be protective against the particulate matter that you see in wildfire smoke, so if you are out and about and you do have health issues. First of all, the recommendations are to not go out where's there's smoky conditions and high particulate matter from a fire. Secondly, if you need to and you have the ability to use a N95 respirator, that is the only protective measure you have in face of wildfire smoke, but better yet, is to stay indoors."

Szabo noted N95 masks are easy to identify from other masks.

"You want to make sure when you find a mask, you want to look for the rating," said Szabo. "You want to look for some kind of NIOSH or OSHA rating, N95, or PM particle matter, 2.5. Those are indicating that these filter down to very smaller particles to protect your lungs."

California / Community / Environment / Fire / Health / Safe at Home / San Luis Obispo County / Santa Barbara- S County / Santa Maria - North County / Video / What's Right

Dave Alley

Dave Alley is a reporter and anchor at KCOY|KEYT|KKFX.