The wildfires increasingly scorching the West send families running to shelters, but the air they’re breathing once they get there may be just as bad as the smoke-choked skies they were fleeing.

That worries air quality officials who are taking a hard look at the air filters in the community centers, senior centers, libraries, and schools that are pressed into service as shelters during emergencies.

It’s forcing them to reassess whether people should be told to stay indoors when fires burn nearby.

“We were sending folks to community centers, and frankly they sucked,” California’s Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said Feb. 14 during a Air & Waste Management Association seminar on wildfires. “The air quality was as bad inside those centers as it was outside.”

Zane’s district includes Santa Rosa, which was the epicenter of the devastating wildfires that swept across the wine country in October 2017.

The idea of a clean air shelter—similar to cooling centers opened during summer heat waves—is something air quality officials increasingly say needs consideration. California officials are requesting as much as $50 million from the state to equip several thousand such facilities with high efficiency air filters.

A New Approach

It represents a shift in how air quality officials think about fire response.

Traditionally, residents are told to stay in their homes to avoid breathing the smoke, but now state regulators are learning more about just how bad indoor air quality can get during the fires, which spew toxic chemicals from burning homes and cars.

“We need to move away from urging people to stay inside and limit outdoors activity to instead telling them to stay inside in a space with proper air filters,” Sarah Coefield, air quality specialist with Montana’s Missoula City-County Health Department, said at the conference.

Coefield’s agency has teamed up with an environmental nonprofit Climate Smart Missoula to provide senior centers with portable air cleaners designed to filter out fine air particles.

It also is working with its counterparts in the land use department to make sure that new schools and buildings are designed with the most efficient indoor air ventilation systems.

The time to check shelter air filters is now, before new fires erupt, Peter Brewer, air quality attainment coordinator at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said.

Cities and counties prone to wildfires could draw from lessons learned from industries that already create special pollution-free spaces for their workers, Michele Gehring, the Air & Waste Management Association’s president and founding principal of environmental consulting firm Coterie Environmental LLC, said.

“The problem is if we don’t do something, the indoor air will start to look a lot like outdoor air,” Coefield said.