Is it safe to drive when it gets really smoky?

Hi I have a quick question - is it safe to drive when it gets really smoky? I live in California where there are some massive uncontained fires now and the air quality index hit 350 yesterday, which is pretty nasty. It was raining a little ash. As long as the cabin air filter isn’t compromised should it be fine? My mom has to drive home which will take ~3.5 hours. Thanks.

I don’t know for sure, but I would keep the ventilation system in recirc mode. She should definitely carry a Carbon Monoxide detector in the car, and be prepared to pull over and call 911 if it goes off for an extended period of time (more than a minute or two continuously). I’d recommend she change her cabin air filter after she got home too.

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Short answer: No. If it’s smokey enough, you can’t see where you’re going. We drive from St. Louis to Dallas occasionally and there are signs along the highway in Oklahoma that say, “Do not drive into smoke.” Even if you can see, it’s not safe to inhale smoke. That’s why people die from “smoke inhalation” rather than “fresh air inhalation.” Put mom in the guest room or a hotel.

I’m not one to shun danger or risk, but I don’t think that little cabin filter is going to do much. So you could expect the inside air to be pretty much about the same as the outside air. Whether that’s tolerable or not is a question for her. But then are we driving through smoke to get to a cleaner location, or driving into the smoke to reside at a smokey location? I don’t like or trust forest fires and it seems that the fire folks, try as they might, are not able to contain it much. No answer, just more to think on.

The smoke and ash won’t hurt the car, the question is does your mother feel ok and safe driving.

I would love an air quality index of 350. We’ve been sucking in ash and smoke all week here in Oregon.

Readings were up in the 500s for a while. It’s been impossible to keep the smoke out.

If it looked like I was going to die by fire staying in my house or risk the smoke I would choose smoke.


Thanks guys, the index is down to 200 up there right now and 250 at the destination. It’s not horrible right now, you can definitely see plenty and the safety cutoff for being outside for prolonged periods of time according to the gov is 150. I’m guessing being in a car while it’s 250 tops outside would be safe since your’re isolated from the outside.

I don’t want to start anything but use your own common sense and health condition. A couple years ago our blessed health department claimed something like 75 people died every year from the air in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I will add the famous “without evidence” phrase to their report. I never saw anyone dead in the streets from breathing the relatively clean air. But if your mother has health conditions take that into consideration. I just don’t think you should rely on inside air in the car being that much better than outside air.

It’s safer for your car than for you. But wash the car after it’s been near a fire. Ash isn’t good for the paint job if it gets wet and stays on the paint (for instance, morning dew).

Check Calfire before leaving to make sure where the fires along the way are. She should take major highways as much as possible. Also check the wind direction and speed predictions for the day.

In the summer after wheat harvest farmers burn off the residue. This leads to massive fields of fire and heavy smoke. This often drifts across the roadways.

About 15 years ago on Highway 60 north of me 3 people were killed in 2 cars when they ran head on into each other in dense smoke. So I might say that breathing smoke is less harmful than the alternative.

Based on my experience around here with wheat fires you are not going to keep all of the smoke out. I have a bit of breathing problem even though I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life so the smoke bothers me a bit at times if it’s too heavy. Generally speaking, it’s not that much of a problem for me.

Mom made it back :slight_smile: Better safe than sorry when it comes to such things. I’d definitely be concerned if the smoke was above index of 300 or so. Not so sure about 200-300.