In New Zealand native and planted forests are plentiful with 38% of New Zealand covered in forests.  In the Bay of Plenty region, the Kaingaroa Forest covers 2900km2 and is the largest forest plantation in New Zealand.  The forest stretches from Lake Taupo to Kawerau.  

Wildfire events are increasing around New Zealand, with significant wildfires striking many regions in recent years.  Preparing for wildfires and understanding the associated health risks is important therefore. 

Wildfire smoke and your health

Wildfire is a fire which burns in a natural area such as a forest or native bush. Wildfire can be caused by human activity, or by a natural phenomenon such as a lightning strike and can happen anywhere at any time (WHO (2022). Wildfires). The quality of our air can have significant human health impacts, and during a wildfire, air quality can be poor due to wildfire smoke. Wildfire smoke contains particulate matter (such as ash and soot), carbon monoxide, and various other hazardous air pollutants (EPA. (2021). Why Wildfire Smoke is a Health Concern.). Our region is not immune to the threat of wildfire, so being prepared for, and knowing how to manage wildfire smoke is important from a health perspective. 

How smoke impacts health 

Most healthy people can tolerate small amounts of smoke exposure, but smoke may affect vulnerable groups such as: 

  • Children 
  • Elderly 
  • Pregnant women  
  • Outdoor workers  
  • People with asthma and other breathing conditions, and respiratory diseases 
  • People with cardiovascular disease 
  • Those in poorer socioeconomic circumstances, including those who are homeless and with limited access to medical care.  

Symptoms of smoke exposure include: 

  • Eye, nose and throat irritation 
  • Coughing 
  • Sneezing 

EPA. (2021). Why Wildfire Smoke is a Health Concern. 

 

Preparing for wildfires 

Items to have readily available at home to reduce smoke exposure include: 

  • Tape, towels and/or paper. These items are useful for sealing doors and windows 
  • HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters for air conditioning units 
  • Face masks if you must go outside  

Learn how to correctly use your air conditioning unit to reduce smoky air indoors if your home has an air conditioning. 

  • If your air conditioning unit brings air from outside, it should only be used with filters (ideally high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters), to reduce smoke indoors 
  • Ensure filters are working effectively; keep them clean, replace when necessary. During prolonged or heavy smoke events the filters may need replacing more frequently. Consider storing spare filters at home. 
  • Learn how to put your air conditioning unit in recirculation mode. Turn off temperature modulation (that is, ensure the fan is on) to ensure air circulates.

  

During a wildfire

How to avoid smoky conditions 

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  •  Whenever possible, stay out of the smoke. Stay indoors when it is practical and safe to do so.  
  • Avoid going outside and do not exercise outdoors while smoke is present.  
  • Close all doors and windows to reduce smoke coming into your home.  
  • Seal gaps under doors or around windows and wall vents with damp towels, blankets, tape or paper.  
  • Consider bringing pets inside away from smoke or heat.  
  • When indoors:  
    • avoid other sources of indoor air pollution such as: smoking cigarettes, vaping, burning candles, using wood burners, or stirring up fine dust by sweeping or vacuuming. 
    • Homes with air conditioners should use them with HEPA.  If the air conditioner has no filter, use it on recirculation mode only (turn off temperature modulation).  During prolonged or heavy smoke events the filters may need cleaning or replacing more frequently.  Turn off temperature modulation (that is, ensure the fan is on) to ensure air circulates.  
  • If the air in your home is uncomfortable, consider going to an air-conditioned building like a library or shopping centre for a break if it is safe to do so. 
  • When smoke levels outside clear up, open windows and doors to flush with fresh air.  
  • When cleaning, use a damp mop or damp dust cloth, to minimise stirring up settled particles. 
  • Look out for your neighbours, especially the elderly, those in ill-health and those who live alone. 
  • Consider storing spare filters at home. 

Heat stress risk  

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Heat stress risk  

When doors and windows are closed in hot weather, there is an increased risk of heat stress in homes with no air conditioning. Heat-related illnesses include heat exhaustion and heat stroke which can be severe and even fatal. Warning signs include heavy sweating, muscle cramps, weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, paleness, confusion, fainting (passing out) and dizziness.  

To keep cool and prevent overheating: 

  • Wear light loose clothing  
  • Create a cool compress by wetting a towel with cool water and placing it around the neck or on the forehead.  
  • Take cool showers and baths 
  • Drink plenty of water  

Advice for people with pre-existing health conditions 

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  • Anyone with a heart or lung condition should follow any management plan advised by their doctor. 
  • Anyone with asthma should ensure their personal asthma plan is up to date and follow it.  
  • Anyone who needs to leave their home due to a fire or very smoky conditions should take necessary prescriptions and medications with them.  

Advice for everyone 

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  • Minimise time spent in smoky conditions whenever practical to do so.  
  • If you MUST go outdoors, postpone, or shorten your time outdoors or reschedule tasks to smoke-free/less smoky areas or times of the day. Take frequent breaks inside cleaner air spaces (such as enclosed structures or vehicles with recirculating or filtered air).  
  • People aged over 65 years, children 14 years and younger, pregnant women and those with existing heart or lung conditions should reduce prolonged or heavy physical activity. Where possible (and where people are not under direct threat from wildfires), limit time spent outdoors.  
  • If you are experiencing symptoms that may be due to smoke exposure, or anyone in your care is experiencing such symptoms, call Healthline on 0800 611 116 and seek medical advice.  
  • If you experience difficulty breathing or heaviness/tightness in the chest (or shoulders, arms, jaw, neck, or tummy), or other concerning or worsening symptoms, seek urgent medical assistance – call 111.  
  • For regular updates on what you should do, listen to your local emergency radio station.  

Evacuation

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If you need to evacuate local authorities will inform you.  

If you are asked to evacuate: 

  • Close all doors and windows 
  • Disconnect water tanks and cover any openings 
  • Secure your home when you leave 

Food safety 

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For further information on how to minimise water and food spoilage, and ensure your food is safe to consume, see here.

Advice for livestock, lifestyle block, horse, and pet owners 

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For information on the welfare of your animals in a fire, see here.

After a wildfire

General advice

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  • Ash from forest fires is usually non-toxic however ash from built structures may contain substances that may be harmful because of synthetic and other materials present in buildings. Older buildings in particular may contain asbestos and lead.  A more cautious approach therefore may be needed when cleaning up after a wildfire.  Follow the current public health advice. 
  • Do not consume any food, beverages or medication that has been exposed to burn debris, ash, or chemical fire retardant. Food exposed to smoke maybe contaminated and may not be safe to eat.  
  • Wear protective clothing and equipment (such as long-sleeve shirts, pants, gloves, and safety glasses) when working around ash. If you do get ash on your skin, wash it off as soon as possible.  
  • Well-fitting face masks or respirators will provide some protection during clean-up.  
  • In most cases, gently sweeping indoor and outdoor hard surfaces followed by wet mopping is the best way to clean up ash residue. A damp cloth or wet mop may be all that is needed on lightly dusted areas. Avoid washing ash into storm drains whenever possible. If you wet down ash, use as little water as possible. 
  • Do not use leaf blowers or take other actions (for example, dry sweeping) that will put ash and particles into the air. Many shop vacuums and common vacuum cleaners do not filter out small particles; rather, they blow fine particles out the exhaust into the air. To clean up ash, use vacuums equipped with HEPA filters.  

Drinking water supplies

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For information on drinking water, see here.

Resources to look after your mental wellbeing during an emergency

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For information on self care and wellness during an emergency, see here.

Keep up to date with events happening in your region

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View an interactive map showing a live nationwide feed of road closures and roadworks, Metservice weather watches and warnings, emergency statuses and more.