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Designing for wildfire and smoke

 
Posts: 85
Location: Southwestern NM
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Hi all! Was just reading an article on climate change and was thinking the wildfires and smoke are only going to get worse here in the SW. I'm looking to buy a decent sized chunk of land within the next few years and start designing a permaculture demonstration site. I LOVE the SW and want to stay in my community, but the smoke really messes with me in the summers already. I would specifically like ideas for designing a smoke-defensive site, if that might be possible (preferably low-tech).  Anyone out there nerding out on airflow patterns, etc? Also, I'd love ideas for designing in a highly wildfire prone area. How can I make a site that can resist a fire entirely?

For fireproofing, I'm thinking of using a wide band around the perimeter of local succulents like agave and prickly pear. Maybe a mote that could be flooded from an upper pond? Making the most of mulch and greywater, which is obvious,  anyway. I've heard that keeping limbs below 4 foot trimmed and less understory material is necessary but it's hard to imagine that in a permaculture system.  What about the lower layers of plants?

What are your ideas?  Thanks!
 
pollinator
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It's ok to have plants on the ground. The idea is to keep the fire out of the tree crowns. That's why you trim of the lower limbs below the length of the flame you would expect if all the ground plants are burning. A ground fire is fine, easy to mitigate and control but if it gets into large trees, it rapidly becomes an issue.  

I like your idea of a band of low flammable "fire line" around your property. The moat idea is probably more trouble than it's worth. An area of bare soil, maybe a perimeter trail or road in conjunction with your succulent band would be better, I would think. Not that a floodable moat wouldn't be AWESOME!

I have no idea if you can prevent or minimize smoke from a large wildfire. BUT, I live in an area that has all kinds of ridges, valleys mountains and hills and I have never heard anyone saying the smoke isn't that bad here or there. If that makes sense.
 
Posts: 394
Location: Sierra Nevada foothills, 350 m, USDA 8b, sunset zone 7
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1. Build structures not from flammable materials.

2. Disc the perimeter that you want to protect. Keep it t least 5m/17', so 3 widths of a standard 6' disc.
Plants on the ground are ok, but not dry grasses that will spread fire in minutes. Disc them or let your ruminants graze them down.

3. Get a fire hose and have it by your buildings, by your water outlet.

4. Get tubs with water in various places. I was in the heart of a foothill fire last summer. Sometimes a bucket of water may stop spreading it in your direction. With grass fire you need water in various places, a hose will not reach to most of them. I was thinking about making a custom implement for my tractor - a water tank wit attached sprinklers (with simple valve) and small 12V pump with a short hose. It would allow to address fire spots that are numerous and small but too far to run to them with buckets of water - usually in 100 F heat + fire heat plus smoke.

Smoke was bad only in close encounter. We get western winds that cleared my valley from all of it and only the smell of burnt trees and grasses persisted..
 
Trish Doherty
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Great ideas, guys! I really wonder if the smoke situation is going to be a deal-breaker for me in the long term because I'm very sensitive to it. But then, with wildfires getting worse and carrying smoke long distances, who knows where there will be good air? It seems there's little to do, short of building a biodome. I had hoped maybe there could be some trick to it... like enough forestation might catch some of the particles, or selecting a site with particular topography might mean that prevailing winds carry up and over. That kind of thing.  I love this place enough to stick it out until it's impossible, but I should probably work on a backup plan.

Dan, the specifics you gave about branches and understory were very helpful. I think I get it now.  Thanks!  It would probably mean that trees will be too high for easy harvesting, but I guess you can't have it all!

Cristo, I'll have to learn more about discing. I don't know much about it.  Any good resources you would recommend?
 
Cristobal Cristo
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Trish Doherty wrote:Cristo, I'll have to learn more about discing. I don't know much about it.  Any good resources you would recommend?



You just need a compact tractor and a disc or someone who would do it for you. If you have hard soil - like mine, then you need a heavy disc - at least 700 lbs, not some toys sold online. I had one like that and it was just "polishing" the ground - even with two adult men standing on it. Good old 6' wide Towner or Indusco can be bought for $500. Tractor needs to be at least 1500 kg/3000 lbs weight to be able to pull them and engage successfully.
Someone can disc for you - it will make financial sense only if "someone" lives close to your property, otherwise they will overcharge for equipment delivery.

Discing will chop all vegetation and will just leave dirt. Actually over 100 firefighters that were involved in my recent fire were using hoes to separate burnt areas from not burnt grass, so basically they were "discing" by hand. They also used bulldozer to create dirt border between bunt/not burnt areas on a neighboring hill. Mowing would seem to also remove the vegetation, but not enough to stop spreading fire completely.
 
master pollinator
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Trish Doherty wrote:I really wonder if the smoke situation is going to be a deal-breaker for me in the long term because I'm very sensitive to it. But then, with wildfires getting worse and carrying smoke long distances, who knows where there will be good air? It seems there's little to do, short of building a biodome. I had hoped maybe there could be some trick to it... like enough forestation might catch some of the particles, or selecting a site with particular topography might mean that prevailing winds carry up and over.


It's a very widespread concern. If smoke from a big fire is being swirled over by natural weather from hundreds of miles away, there is nothing you can do directly. But you can create well sealed living and working quarters that are in effect shelters from the worst of it, to give you a reprieve from working outside with an N95 mask or let you take on indoor tasks on a particularly bad day.

Edit: Thinking it over, it is psychologically akin (and practically quite similar) to operating in very cold weather. Though if I had to choose between high heat and heavy smoke vs. very cold with clean air, I might just choose the latter.  
 
steward
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So far everyone's made thoughtful suggestions, but I'd like to expand on some and add a few:

1. Yes, some plants will slow down or stop a fire, as will bare land. If erosion isn't an issue, strips of land in key spots could be useful. The reverse is also true. Some plants have so many volatile compounds in them that they will pretty much spontaneously combust if the heat of a wild fire gets too close, so I would  research all the plants I'm considering with fire risk as one search term.

2. Yes, there are benefits of fruit trees kept low for easy picking - my neighbor swears by that approach, and then whines about the deer damage! I spotted a 10 ft 3-legged orchard ladder on sale, and it allows me to reach pretty much as much fruit as I need. I have a "hook on a stick" to bend some of the branches down, and a telescoping picker gizmo which I use in a pinch, but I'm not that strong and I find it hard to control.

3. I attended a local fire prevention seminar. In my region we have wet winters, but summers can be very dry. The Fire Marshall explained that there's a chart which shows the interaction between humidity and temperature. Sept can be very risky because after anywhere upwards of 8 weeks of minimal rain, if we get a Sept heatwave, the conditions are such that almost any spark in the wrong place could have disastrous results. So as much as I love your moat idea, you may find that when you really need it, you don't have enough water for it to be effective. However, if you feel you can reserve a reasonable amount of water for fire prevention, there are misting systems that might give you more effect for less water by lowering the temperature. This assumes you don't have an already monstrous fire baring down on you!

4. Permies members usually want to build in environmentally sound ways. However, we do need to work with our ecosystems. Several years ago, Fort McMurray in Alberta suffered mayor fire damage. The relatively new houses were built just like all new housing across Canada tends to be built with plastic siding and complicated roof styles which is an open invitation for a wildfire to burn them to the ground. No sustainability there! So what are the fire-proof building materials that are available on your land and appropriate for your ecosystem? What compromises could be made that would make a home fire resistant? People will say that concrete isn't environmentally friendly, but if using concrete efficiently protects your house from fire, and if you balance it's use with making biochar and hügelkultur beds to offset its embodied energy, that to me is better than being homeless!

5. I agree with Douglas about air quality issues. Hepa filters are more available than they used to be. I would try to organize my home in such a way that I'd have a core area where you can specifically filter the air. I've read some articles suggesting that some wildfire smoke contains asbestos among other serious pollutants, and that is not only when you can see the smoke - it's the extremely small particulates that are particularly damaging. I'm not aware of outdoor plants capable of large scale protection from forest fire smoke. All you can do is design your homestead to provide protection when needed through thoughtful building and stock top-quality masks to wear when you need them.
 
pollinator
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For dealing with pervasive smoke in the area, you might take a lead from those who are working on systems for better air in urban cities high pollution levels. There are air filtration systems, for example, that can be highly effective at removing the small particulates in smog, that I presume would be similarly effective at reducing smoke.

However the bottom line is that you are living in an area that is naturally fire prone; you are going to be working against the natural systems that are in play to build a defensive garden. It's going to be challenging, and require regular work to maintain.

A family member has recent bought a property in a fireprone area. Her local fire department did a site visit to walk around and help her both identify problem areas, and plan for improvements. Is something similar available in your area?
 
pollinator
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I'm in SE Indiana and we don't have large wildfires, well, we haven't historically had large wildfires, but I fear that could change if the intensity of our droughts continues to deepen. If I had opportunity to build a new house it would have zero combustible material on its exterior. Steel reinforced concrete or masonry or at very least metal siding and a metal roof. All ventilation spots like under soffits would be well sealed with non-flammable fiberglass insulation, leaving no possibility of entry to wind-blown sparks.  

It's bad enough when grass or trees burn but today's fires are houses and cars and gas stations and and....  Every nasty thing you can think of is in that smoke. No amount of plants or trees of any type are going to stop it. To deal with that I would do want a robust hepa filtration system and an off-grid way to power it. I think they would be fairly easy to build using large hepa furnace filters and a small fan. I have one in mind using a 12-volt automobile cabin fan and a small solar panel.
 
master steward
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Everyone has given some well-thought-out answers.

Trees and grass have been mentioned.

I am not sure though I don't think I saw this one:

Keep trees away from the house. Keep tree limbs from touching rooves.

These were questions the agent asked when I called to get insurance on my house.
 
Trish Doherty
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Location: Southwestern NM
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What great input. You're all awesome!

Sealing the house/work space + hepa filters, yes!  Absolutely. I have a small air cleaner I use now and retreat to one closed room when it's bad. That means I can't get a lot done during fire season, which seems to be getting longer every year. For us it's spring and early summer that are the worst, which, unfortunately is when there's a ton of work to do outside. It gets hot,  too, so working with a mask can be difficult.  

Discing: thanks for the info!  Does it work in rocky soil?  We have A LOT of rocks here.

The mote idea was based on a flooding system I read about in Bill Mollison's manual.  It might be that we don't have enough water at the time we would need it.

Buildings: I'm not planning on living on the site.  We'd stay in our current home,  which could definitely use some sealing up. In the long term we might build a cabin or some other structures, and it would make the most sense to use cob or adobe in our area.

I'm not sure if the fire department here offers such a thing,  but I know some volunteer firefighters and ex-fire fighters who may be a good resource if not.  It's a brilliant idea to get that kind of expertise.

You all had so many good ideas and I was trying to remember everything I wanted to reply to, but I'm sure I forgot something.  Thanks so much for all the input!
 
Dan Fish
pollinator
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Hi again.

As far as easy harvesting, a few untrimmed fruit or nut trees is not a deal breaker at all. It's mostly things like pine and cedar that I was talking about. The ones that are fire-resistant until the canopy catches. Fruit trees, especially if you keep them spaced out well is not really a big fire concern. Unless you are said tree, I suppose.

 
Trish Doherty
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Lol. I imagine the trees would prefer not to catch on fire. I'll watch out especially for the flammable trees.  Juniper are all over the place here, especially,  so it will have to be looked at closely.

I'd like to have at least a handful of easy-harvest trees so that kids could just reach up and pick fresh fruit without having to climb ladders.
 
pollinator
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On a modification of the moat idea, I have a 4ft wide gravel path atop a base that I channeled to take roof runoff towards the zone 1 kitchen garden, where woodchip filled pathways between hugel beds absorbs the water. I would like to get a large enough pond dug above the house to flood that, and run rooftop sprinklers in the event of fire.
 
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I can say as a wildland firefighter that your fruit and nut trees don’t have to be limbed to any serious height. I would recommend only limbing the coniferous trees, even thinning them out as they get closer to your house. Orchards on the other hand are some of the safest places to be as the irrigation makes it unlikely for fire to carry there. They are often noted as possible safety zones. Keep the vegetation from touching your house, the wood pile far away, and mow the grass within a hundred feet of your home. A sprinkler on each corner should be sufficient to stop fire moving through short grass so don’t bother discing especially if the soil is rocky anyway. A trail down to mineral soil around the property would help. As for smoke there’s no vegetation that will filter it out. You’ll have to get an air purifier.
 
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We live in western Colorado with lots of piñon-juniper nearby. Our firefighter son-in-law has helped immeasurably with guidance on defensible space and good ol’ fire science. Your fire department will visit your property and provide suggestions. Many of them look for opportunities and use them
As training exercises for their teams. Look up “fire embers” in wildfire for terrifying detail about the main cause of spread in semi urban and rural areas where housing is lost. We are working this summer to install metal screening everywhere embers could gain hold. (120 year old brick Victorian) The firewood pile has been moved a good bit away from the house.  We pulled out huge, ratty, old junipers and other shrubs up against the house and outbuildings. We have room to build a smaller structure and are in planning for an earth bag building as an ADU with perma sensibilities incorporated. Mowing tall grasses, keeping our 100 year old trees trimmed, irrigated and away from the house, and helping our neighbors do the same are all on the must-do list. Have a plan to leave and where to go if your roads are blocked. Your fire department should have this plan to share as well. AND get to know your neighbors. Last year squatters knocked over a charcoal grill and started a small grass fire. Neighbors started calling and two dozen people loaded up with shovels and headed over. The fire was stopped before the rural volunteer fire department arrived. (Be very careful with this one!) Air quality we handle indoors with purifiers in each bedroom. We have been hammered with California wildfire smoke some years. Lastly, landscape sensibly. And with all of this in mind, there is no other part of the country we would love as much. ❤️
 
pollinator
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Check with your local fire department and/or your county government about Firewise information. In my county in NM the USFS, BLM and State joined up with us to create a Firewise program that would be appropriate for the conditions here. Half our county is forested, the rest is grasslands and mesas.  Firewise is different for each.  No point in talking about crown fires if you live in an open grassland -- structures on your property can burn down just as quickly wherever you are if the conditions are right for it.

Google "Firewise" to start, for national programs.  Every federal and state land management agency will have Firewise info, and at least in the Southwest, local governments will, too.  There's LOTS of help to figure out what would work best to create defensible space around structures, or pastures where you've got livestock, or equipment like windmills, etc.  There may be grant money available for doing the work, plus local governments may have equipment, such as chippers, that can be used.  Our county has a chipper and an operator that will come to our properties when people are ready for that.  

As has already been mentioned by others, contact your local fire department for their advice. After all, they'll be the first ones on the way if you have to dial 911 because of fire.  Not only are they a good source of info about defensive space, they like being able to go to your property to learn first-hand about any issues in reaching you.

As to the smoke issue, I sure would love to learn how to deal with that, aside from wearing respirators. I always worry about my critters' (and my) lungs when the smoke gets dense here, not just because of how hard it is to breathe but what down-the-line issues might crop up because of pollutants being inhaled.

 
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One other resource that might be helpful after you have a property is the Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS. I apologize if they’ve already been mentioned and I just missed it. They have funding and expertise on fire mitigation techniques among a host of other things.

We’re on 10 heavily forested acres, and they did a cost share project with us to hire a logger to create a firebreak between us and our most likely avenue of fire approach. He removed coniferous trees to 40’ apart in a 100’ wide band, and then we allowed the understory to regenerate with low growing shrubs, berries, some planted grasses, etc. Now, 5 years on, it looks beautiful and would greatly reduce the intensity of an approaching fire.

Our Resource Specialist was great. We walked the property, he gave us lots of good ideas, and once we decided how we wanted to proceed we sat down and created a scope of work for the project. Once that got the go ahead we were free to hire anyone we wanted to actually do the work, and once it was completed he came back, signed off, and a few weeks later we had a check. During the project he was always a phone call away if we had questions.

We would never have been able to afford to hire someone on our own to do that mountain of work or do it all ourselves in our lifetime with just two of us.

One additional benefit is we see much more wildlife after opening that area up.
 
pollinator
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We are in fire country in the PNW so we are developing our landscape and buildings to resist fire. The property was partly clearcut by the previous owner and he left an unbelievable amount of fire fuel in the form of logging slash and felled timber so we are trying to clean that up and put it to its highest use as milled lumber, split rails, firewood and hugelkultur material. This is definitely a multi-year cleanup project though.

We have been working to infiltrate and capture moisture in the soil using swales, tree and understory polyculture plantings, and rotational grazing. It seems to be working - each year it gets greener in the five acre swale-space and stays greener further into the dry season.

All major buildings such as the future house and large quonset barn/workshop will have metal or fibre-cement siding and metal roofs. Eventually these will be fully surrounded by orchards, livestock grazed areas and ponds. We will maintain a tree-free zone around these buildings. We use steel shipping containers for important or flammable items like hay and tool storage, etc. (Smaller sheds such as 10 x 10 ft seasonal/rotational livestock shelters are being built with cedar milled from our log salvage, and metal roofs. Those are more easily replaceable.)

The long term plan is to use ponds as fire breaks to intercept fires heading into our land from from the perimeter and we have two dug already but it will be a while before we get all of them done.

We save rainwater from roofs or haul water from the well to use around the property in a variety of containers ranging from a 2500 gal tank at the top of the hill to about a dozen ICB totes (about 250 gal each) and half a dozen 55 gal barrels. So there’s usually water nearby our planting areas but with the exception of the big tank that can be opened to flood the swales, the others have no power or pressure. We have some of the totes set up on stacks of pallets to get a little gravity pressure for watering with a regular garden hose. Otherwise it’s just buckets or watering cans.

So this year we’ve done a major upgrade to our fire fighting capacity. We bought a utility trailer that we’ll use as a dedicated water hauling and fire fighting rig carrying a full ICB tote and a gas powered Honda pump with a 2 inch hose and adjustable nozzle that can shoot out a good stream of water. It will be a game changer for ease of recharging our irrigation setups but equally important, this rig can be towed by the tractor or truck to most parts of the farm on the old logging roads, and will be parked nearby when doing machine work in the dry season. We usually have a full tote in the back of the truck in summer too and can move totes as needed with the tractor.

There’s an effective volunteer fire department on our small island too. But having these arrangements in place and working steadily toward the long term fireproofing design goals for the landscape gives additional peace of mind.

Smoke is a bit more challenging. The best we’ve been able to do so far is closing up the house and running a large HEPA air cleaner that has kept it very comfortable in the house in summers when there’s been a lot of smoke from mainland BC and WA. If we get that situation again, I’ll be outside testing how well an N95 mask works against smoke. I haven’t noticed the goats showing effects of living outside with that smoke but would like to find a better solution for them. They can have cooled mullein tea in their water buckets and I think that helps as a respiratory support. But I haven’t figured out any vegetation solution that filters smoke to any degree.
 
gardener & hugelmaster
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I was thinking about making a custom implement for my tractor - a water tank wit attached sprinklers (with simple valve) and small 12V pump with a short hose. It would allow to address fire spots that are numerous and small but too far to run to them with buckets of water - usually in 100 F heat + fire heat plus smoke.



They make premade pump & water tank assemblies for ATVs & trucks. I think they are available for tractors too. It would be fairly easy to install one for ATVs on a tractor's 3 point hitch. Here's another thread that has some pix of them installed on ATVs.

We used tractor disks for fire prevention. We made firebreaks with them. Before the fire was started. I suppose a lot depends on type of tractor & the terrain but I generally prefer a 4 wheel drive ATV over a tractor for fighting a fire that is already burning. They are very effective because they're small, fast, maneuverable in tight conditions, & can put a lot of water exactly where needed.

There are some excellent suggestions already mentioned above. The basic idea is to remove excess fuel, especially around houses & other structures. One thing specific to NM & other places with arroyos is, well, arroyos. Once a fire starts on the lower end of those it rips upwards extremely fast. Pay special attention to arroyos! Once a fire starts there it's usually too late to do much about it. I've seen too many very expensive houses along the scenic top of arroyos & canyons completely destroyed in seconds, yes seconds, simply because there was too much fuel below.

One lesser known but useful tool that often works better than water or vehicles is a powerful leaf blower. One of those can blow a long line of burning leaves, etc back into itself & eliminate the threat very quickly.

 
Lif Strand
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Timothy Gift wrote:One other resource that might be helpful after you have a property is the Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS.  


Oh yes, NRCS is a great resource for Firewise stuff plus much more!
 
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Having just been through some of the worst fires ever on the West Coast of the US, wind is in control of the smoke.   I can't imagine what could help with smoke.  It's Ma Nature's thing, and you can't mess with Ma Nature :-)

The wind brings the smoke to somewhere and it takes it away.  Large fires create their own wind.   The smoke was so thick and horrible at one point in 2020 it turned the whole sky orange, believe it or not, for miles and miles.   It was impossible to breathe outside, all vents to the basement were covered, put tape over unused electrical outlets, towels crammed under doors.   The smoke in general, not always orange, was around for 25+ days coming from neighboring states and Canada.  We just stayed inside with a filter on the box fan, shut the curtains, and binged on DVDs.  It was only the wind that cleared that smoke away.

They are saying right now in May of 2023 that the smoke from the British Columbia fires could fill coastal towns all the way down to Central California, that's in the neighborhood of 1,000 miles.

The folks who were most worried about the long-term effects of that awful smoke were the vineyards and what it would do to their wine.  It was the end of August, most of September, so most other fruit was finished by then.

Native plants stand the best chance of surviving.  It's a little misleading when they say that plants are fire resistant.  They shouldn't say plants are "fire proof," that's just really misleading.  What they mean is that the plants will burn, but the odds are good they will come back.   Plants that are native to fire-prone areas have survived fires for millennia.  Plenty of the redwood trees on the West Coast have been burned to columns of black char, and they are now sprouting out all along their trunks...well, 25%-40% of them, anyway.  It's stunning, and amazing.  But they still burned at the time.

One fella got his house burned early on in his homeowner history, then built a home out of cinderblocks, and a big, hot fire burned that to the ground.  

Being prepared for fire is the most important thing, 100+ feet of clearance around buildings, trimmed trees and bushes, thousands of gallons of stored water, and tanks protected at all costs,  water that will have to be moved by a gas-powered water pump and lines that won't burn (because the power goes out, no electricity to run the well pump.)  High water pressure created by the water pump will get the water onto the roof or into sprinklers that will shoot far enough to help.

Fires and smoke are inconvenient when they are somewhere else.  Fires are a nightmare when they turn your life upside down, and that's really what is important to be prepared for.  :-)



 
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As a former wildland firefighter and someone who has spent years paying attention to the drought in the west, my best advice is to move east of the Rockies. The situation in the west is only going to continue to get worse.
 
Lif Strand
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Just came across this about https://www.ourhouseplants.com/guides/50-plants-that-clean-the-air
Also check out another permie forum talking about the issue https://permies.com/t/163811/permaculture-house-plants/houseplants-clean-wildfire-smoke
 
Jay Angler
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Lif Strand wrote:Just came across this about https://www.ourhouseplants.com/guides/50-plants-that-clean-the-air
Also check out another permie forum talking about the issue https://permies.com/t/163811/permaculture-house-plants/houseplants-clean-wildfire-smoke

This issue is that plants can't do enough in a heavy, week-long smoke situation. If your location is prone to that, I would buy a hepa filter. For mild smoke situations lasting a day or two, plants are definitely a help - they've been shown to help with air quality in cities for example.
 
Lif Strand
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Jay Angler wrote:

Lif Strand wrote:Just came across this about https://www.ourhouseplants.com/guides/50-plants-that-clean-the-air
Also check out another permie forum talking about the issue https://permies.com/t/163811/permaculture-house-plants/houseplants-clean-wildfire-smoke

This issue is that plants can't do enough in a heavy, week-long smoke situation. If your location is prone to that, I would buy a hepa filter. For mild smoke situations lasting a day or two, plants are definitely a help - they've been shown to help with air quality in cities for example.


I agree, but I'm on solar.  During heavy smoke my power system is already compromised so no air filtering for me!  

However, if people are sealing their houses to keep smoke out, I would think a bunch of plants would at least keep the air fresh.  I'm wondering if a greenhouse was attached to a barn and the barn could be sealed, then livestock inside might also have breathable and fresh air.  
 
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The smoke where I live was 9 to 10+ on the air quality index last week (scale only goes up to 10). When I was walking home from my bus stop I noticed that the air was SIGNIFICANTLY clearer by the manual spray wand car wash. It has 3 bays with 2 cars per bay and is always busy.  It was a welcome relief after waiting 30 minutes outside for my bus to come. I think the car wash may have been working as a giant humidifier, all the water in the air was trapping airborne particulates and dropping them to the ground. Therfore I think it is possible that a misting system might offer relief to outdoor critters, the trade off being that now all those airborne particulates will drop onto surfaces including food and the critters themselves, so this would have to be considered in the design of such a system.
 
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