Smoke in your home: How to clear the air, clean up and prevent fires from spreading

15 Nov.,2022


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Rachel Mooney was caught off guard when smoky air poured into her Tualatin home that she closed up as best as she could. So she improvised. She tucked damp towels in gaps around window and door frames to stop more airborne ash and chemicals from entering.

She positioned fans to blow the bad air into towels she hung in doorways and she swung damp towels around in rooms, “like waving a flag,” she says.

After a few days, “I have hardly any smoke now," she says. “It works.”

Rachel Mooney hung damp towels to catch smoky air in her Tualatin apartment.Rachel Mooney

When fires spread across Oregon, people surrounded by flames were showered in powdery residue, and even those living miles away were breathing air filled with dangerous gases and fine particles from charred building materials and vegetation.

Health experts are advising all residents to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary, and to prevent harmful smoke from entering their homes.

Here is information on what more you can do to seal your home from smoke, rid indoor air and furnishings from the smell, and quickly make your yard more fire resistant. Wildfires will change the landscape of Oregon’s housing market: Real estate agents say an already low number of homes was just reduced by thousands.

Steps to Healthy Indoor Air

Elizabeth Erekson thought her young family would be safe inside a newly constructed apartment in Sandy. But the gap between the front door and its frame, which annoyingly let in hot air all summer, was now a funnel directing smoke into her home.

She grabbed painter’s tape and duct tape, and sealed off the open spaces around doors and windows. She heard conflicting advice about turning on the air conditioner, so she taped a garage bag around the wall unit and didn’t open a window.

She did run fans to keep the inside air flowing. Still, her eyes were stinging and her sinuses were burning.

“We can smell the smoke, feel it on our faces and see it,” she says. At night, when she turns off the room lights, her illuminated cell phone exposes clouds of particulates floating in the air.

“It’s eerie, weird, scary and stressful,” she says.

Smoke made it hard for everyone in her family to breathe or sleep. On top of that, the neighbor’s carbon monoxide detector, triggered by wildfire smoke, beeped for days.

Experts say if pollutants are in the air, close any openings you can — windows, outside doors, chimney flues — and cover cracks that let air leak in. Turn off anything that draws in outside air, like a fresh air system, dryer or portable air conditioner with a hose vented out a window.

“The biggest question we have been getting is, ‘Should I run my central air conditioner?’” says Rachel Smith of Pyramid Heating + Cooling in Portland. “Yes, you can run your A/C if it is not pulling air from outside. Just make sure to set the fan to ‘on,’ rather than ‘auto,’ to ensure the fan is constantly circulating and filtering air.”

Energy Trust of Oregon experts recommend spending most of your time in a “clean room” without a fireplace or other openings to the outside, and keeping a portable air cleaner running constantly in that room.

Dust or mop surfaces with a damp cloth to collect settled particles.

Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution such as smoking, burning candles or firewood in the fireplace, boiling a pot of water on the stove with essential oils, or using a vacuum that doesn’t have a high efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) filter.

Check your heating filters daily and change or clean them when dirty. Once a filter is full, it no longer traps particulates.

Health experts and others recommend using only HEPA filters, which force air through a fine mesh and trap particles in central heating, ventilation, cooling and air (HVAC) systems.

You can create an air purifying filter by covering the front of a box fan with a HEPA furnace filter or one rated MERV-13 or higher. For safety, turn the fan off if you leave the house. Here are instructions to make a DIY air filter.

Indoor air quality monitors are designed to alert you to contaminants that affect the air you breathe so you can fix the problem.

To check the air quality in your area, visit Or visit the EPA’s air quality website,, and type in your city or ZIP code. View interactive maps at the state’s web page,, or the EPA’s web page,

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality also allows smartphone users to check air quality though an app that can be found by searching for “OregonAir” in the app store.

The air quality index has been frighteningly high across Oregon for more than a week.

“It’s been a journey,” says Erekson. “But it’s been pretty heartwarming to see our community come together to offer support, like a ride to a store or help with animals.”

Clean Smoke Tainted Furnishings

Tiny smoke particles stick to surfaces and embed in porous carpeting, furniture, books and even paint, according to experts at ServiceMaster, which specializes in restoring buildings after water, smoke or fire damage.

Jim Grant of ServiceMaster of Portland says smoke smell from a fire that burned natural materials should dissipate over time with good air flow and cleaning.

The company offers these tips to reducing a strong, pervasive odor:

When the air is fresh again, open doors and windows to draw in outside air, and remove screens to clean them. Point fans toward doorways, room corners and windows to push smells out of the house.

Another way to blow out lingering odor is to close all but one window and one exterior door, and put a large fan outside the exterior door. Then turn the fan on high speed for 15 minutes to force fresh air into the room and out the open window. Repeat in other rooms.

Fresh air will help reduce the smell but you also need to clean items and surfaces.

Wipe walls, ceilings, floors and other solid surfaces with a solution of dish soap, white vinegar and warm water to remove smoke particles. Smoke residue doesn’t stick to glass, but it does to window frames, sills, screens and blinds.

Sprinkle baking soda on upholstery and carpet, wait a few hours to allow it to absorb the smoke smell, then collect the baking soda using a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Wash clothes, towels and linens, and launder or dry clean curtains, area rugs, furniture covers, cushions and any other affected fabrics. Follow the manufacturer’s cleaning recommendations.

Don’t store clean items in your home until it is completely free of smoke odor.

Firefighters set up a command post and staging ground on Ron Crowell's Ashland property during a fast-moving fire in 2015. Crowell was praised by the Battalion Chief from the Medford Fire Department for his vigilant mowing, tree trimming and keeping highly inflammable shrubbery away from the house.

Fire Resistant Yards

Everyone has heard that they need to clear flammable debris away from their home to thwart or diminish a fire. And yet, “when trees die, people often think they can wait until fall when preparing for winter storms," says arborist Lisa Tadewaldt of Urban Forest Pro in Portland. “But these trees should be addressed earlier to avoid fire danger.”

She says the goal is to reduce the opportunity for a slow smolder to turn into a real fire outside your home.

Make sure roofs and gutters are cleared of dead leaves and pine needles, and vents are screened with metal wire mesh no larger than an 1/8 inch to prevent materials from collecting.

Don’t let debris accumulate around storage sheds, propane tanks or wood decks, and consider fire-resistant alternatives for wood fences, outdoor furniture and play sets.

No plant is fireproof, but many are more difficult to ignite. OSU Extension has a free guide, “Fire-resistant Landscapes Plants for the Willamette Valley,” of recommended ground covers, perennials, shrubs and trees with moist, supple leaves and water-like sap.

Old trees are more resilient to damage from wildfires and, if pruned, can act as a living wall that reduces fire’s intense heat and blocks airborne embers, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

To prevent a ground fire from climbing and spreading, remove branches that hang over a house and low branches that are less than six to 10 feet above the ground. Leave 30 feet between a group of two to three trees or 20 feet between lone trees. Remove small conifers growing between mature trees.

Cut dry, brown grass and shrubs, which are also fuel for wildfires.

Experts also recommend that you create a fire break with driveways, gravel paths and green lawns, and make sure your address numbers are clearly visible to emergency responders trying to find you.

Burning embers can travel great distances and the steps you take now to create a defensible space around your property can minimize fire risks, says Tadewaldt.

A mobile home in Medford that Terry Rasmussen of John L. Scott Real Estate listed two weeks for $85,000 went pending this week for $25,000 more after a bidding war.John L. Scott Real Estate

Wildfire’s Impact on Home Sales

Terry Rasmussen in John L. Scott Real Estate’s Medford office says everyone, especially those in the process of buying or selling a home, has been impacted by Oregon’s fires. In his part of southern Oregon, the Almeda fire alone destroyed more than 2,000 residential structures.

“The market was already starved for inventory even before the fire,” says Rasmussen. Thousands of people have been displaced; many were living on low or fixed incomes in mobile home parks.

Areas devastated by wildfires in the past saw prices of homes temporarily drop as sites were cleared and rebuilding construction was underway. The cost to rebuild later resulted in higher asking prices, according to real estate experts.

At the same time, home prices and rents rose in unaffected areas as people relocated there.

“I see a lot of pain, but here’s what I know about southern Oregon, we will come together,” says Rasmussen. “Builders who have competed for years are working together and real estate agents are searching for rentals for people without a home.”

Rasmussen’s clients represent the range of change:

  • An out-of-state buyer who doesn’t plan to move here for six months agreed to let Rasmussen’s office find a short-term tenant.

  • A couple nearing retirement now have nine family members living in their newly purchased house because their adult children lost their home.

  • And a couple who closed escrow last Tuesday and moved their possession in lost everything that night in the fire.

Whitney Minnich of John L. Scott’s Oregon City office says real estate transactions that were able to continue during the coronavirus pandemic are being delayed due to the fires.

Lenders require mortgaged homes to have insurance and many insurance companies have placed a moratorium on fire affected areas.

Lenders are also ordering a re-inspection of a property to make sure the home is still standing and some stopped funding federal Freddie Mac loans after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stepped in to help hard-hit Oregon counties.

Homeowners who were undecided about selling may wait, says Minnich, but people who have to sell, will. “We already have an inventory problem and fires only compounded the issue,” she says.

Rasmussen, working on the other end of the state, agrees.

“People are desperate for housing," he says. A mobile home in Medford that he listed two weeks ago for $85,000 went pending this week for $25,000 more after a bidding war.

“If you put your house on the market, it will be swallowed up,” he says, “unless you ask a ridiculous price.”

People who want to rebuild are also facing a scarcity of building supplies that had already skyrocketed in costs. “On top of the cost going up, it takes years to rebuild a couple thousand homes,” he says.

Rasmussen and Minnich both fear that the housing lost to fire that was affordable will be lost forever.

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072 | @janeteastman