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As we continue to think about the wildfires raging across Canada, the smoke wafting into the U.S. is causing myriad (though considerably less devastating) problems here at home. Certainly, if you can avoid it, don’t go outside. But if you have to hit the road, here are a few ways to stay safe when driving through the wildfire smoke.

How do you keep wildfire smoke out of your car?

Even with an excellent cabin air filter, some outside particulates can get into the cabin of your car. With air pollution nearing all-time highs in the Northeastern U.S., it’s best to avoid using outside air to cool your vehicle while you drive. The recirculation option will reduce the amount of outside air that enters your vehicle cabin while driving and can help block out some of the dangerous air pollution you’ll face on the roads this week.

Park indoors as often as possible

Of course, the biggest hazard of traveling through this polluted air is when you get out of the vehicle. Whenever possible, park in an enclosed space or protected garage to avoid the amount of outdoor air you have to deal with when outside your vehicle. In addition, parking in these protected spaces will help reduce how much contamination enters your vehicle while it’s parked.

If you can’t do that, invest in a tarp to cover your vehicle while it’s parked outside. In addition to keeping harmful air from filtering into your vehicle, it can also protect your car’s paint.

A cabin air filter can keep you safe when driving through wildfire smoke

Islandia, N.Y.: Scene along the Long Island Expressway at exit 58 in Islandia. New York as smoke from Canadian wildfires blanket Long Island on June. 7, 2023.
New York as smoke from Canadian wildfires blanket Long Island on June. 7, 2023. | James Carbone/Newsday RM via Getty Images

This may seem like an obvious one, but if you purchased a used car, check that it has the cabin air filter installed. It doesn’t so much matter how dirty it is, but having a cabin air filter is the easiest way to help prevent harmful particles from entering your car. In addition, ensure that the filter is properly installed.

Most of the time, the cabin air filter is easy to access in the footwell of the passenger compartment. However, it can often be a tight fit, and it is easy to install incorrectly. If you can, find a diagram or video about your specific vehicle. Use that information to check your cabin air filter and make sure it is properly fitted.

What to do once the smoke clears

Wildfire smoke in New York City
Wildfire smoke covers the Statue of Liberty | Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images

The smoke won’t last forever, and once it clears there are a few things you should do to protect both your health and your car. First, change all the air filters in your vehicle. The engine air filter has been working overtime to keep these contaminants out, so it’s likely in worse condition than you’d expect. Change that filter to let your engine breathe freely.

From there, swap that cabin air filter as well. Much like the engine filter, the cabin air filter has caught a lot of that particulate matter from the air. It’s probably going to need a change after the smoke clears, even if it was relatively new at the outset.

Give your car a bath to help protect its paint. The soot and particulate in the wildfire smoke can actually damage your car’s finish. Wash it off as soon as possible to ensure it doesn’t cause any pitting in your clear coat.

Finally, perform an oil change. Driving through this terrible air makes your engine work harder, and some of those contaminants will still end up suspended in the oil. An oil and filter change will refresh your engine’s lubrication and remove those particulates from the system.

Stay home as often as possible

Ideally, you should stay home and indoors for as long as this smoke hangs in the air.  California has several recommendations for staying safe while indoors. But whether you’re forced to go to work, or you have basic needs that require leaving the house, use these tips to stay safe as you drive through wildfire smoke.