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Official advice on avoiding smoke from heatwave wildfires

12:00am | & Health

After a sustained period of hot, dry weather, and with more forecast over the next 10 days, many areas of UK heath and moorland are tinder dry and at risk from wildfires.

Firefighters from across England, aided by military personnel and equipment, have been fighting a major fire on moorland at Winter Hill, in Lancashire, and monitoring another at Saddleworth Moor, Greater Manchester, which is now under control but could still flare up again.

These large fires have been declared “major incidents”, but other firefighters across the UK have been routinely turning out to smaller grassland or moorland fires, some of them started deliberately. As the heatwave continues, everyone venturing into the countryside should take extreme care not to do anything which could start a fire.

The obvious thing is not to carelessly discard lit cigarettes, but other causes include carelessness around campfires and barbecues, releasing ‘Chinese lanterns’ or setting off fireworks. Dropped glass bottles can also act as a magnifying glass in strong sunlight and start fires by concentrating heat from the sun’s rays.

Thick smoke from large fires can drift for many miles and cause serious health problems for people in its path, especially those with existing breathing problems, or the elderly and young children. Smoke can irritate air passages, the skin and the eyes, leading to coughing and wheezing, breathlessness and chest pain. It can also worsen existing problems such as asthma, so people should carry their inhaler with them at all times.

In response to the current major fires, Public Health England has issued advice for residents or drivers who could be affected by drifting smoke. Residents in affected areas should stay indoors, keep their doors and windows closed and tune in to their local radio station for ongoing advice and information.

Residents are also advised that when the smoke has moved away and is no longer visible, think about opening doors and windows to allow the house to cool down. If the direction of the wind changes and smoke returns to the area, remember to go back inside and shut windows and doors again until the smoke has visibly cleared.

Motorists who have to travel through the smoke should keep windows closed and switch air conditioning systems to recycle or recirculate air, rather than draw in air from outside the vehicle. If people need to be outdoors, they should try to avoid areas affected by any smoke or ash, or to limit the time that they spend in them.

Anyone affected by inhaling smoke and who is concerned about their (or someone else’s) symptoms should contact their GP or ring the NHS advice line on 111. In addition, Public Health England appreciates the hot weather is having a combined effect and also recommends:

  • wearing lighter clothing
  • keeping hydrated with cool drinks
  • limiting activities that might contribute to emissions within the home, such as cooking
  • setting any air conditioning to recirculate mode
  • limiting the time that you spend outdoors and avoiding strenuous physical activity.

For general advice from the NHS on how to cope in a heatwave, click here, and for more details about the current heatwave weather alert, visit the MET Office website by clicking here.

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