Encountering the smell of smoke while living in the woods may indicate a serious issue, or just be a sign that your neighbor is using a BBQ to cook dinner. What steps you take when you encounter unexpected smoke depends on where you are.

If you're indoors:

  • First, protect yourself and your family. Quickly search for the smoke source and get out of the house or building if fire is present, particularly if it is large and/or uncontained. Get others out as well. Call 911 from a cell phone or a neighbor's house rather than stay inside a burning building. If a fire is small and you have an extinguisher of the proper type handy, you can try putting it out, but take as little risk as possible, and do not breathe the smoke for too long. Please do not put yourself in harm's way. Saving lives always comes before saving property, so use caution and common sense.

  • If a quick search reveals no obvious source of smoke or flame, check to see if the smoke is coming through an open window or door. Smoke from fires, fireplaces, barbeques, and other sources can drift long distances, pushed by winds or flowing along the ground, and it tends to pool in low lying, flat areas where homes are often built. On occasion, exterior smoke can be sucked into a home by a furnace, particularly if there are problems with the ducting. If you determine the smoke is coming from outdoors, go on to the next section.

  • If you still find no source, consider less obvious internal locations: crawl spaces, attics, breaker boxes, appliances in garages, furnaces, etc. Even simple electronic items occasionally die and emit smoke or start fires. Clocks, battery chargers, and many similar things can malfunction in unexpected ways, so widen your search. You might not find it if an appliance simply died and emitted smoke for a minute or two, but the odor should be stronger near the source. If something went seriously wrong you might find fire as well, so again, be careful and use common sense.

  • If you find no source and the smell does not dissipate, call 911. The fire department will come and inspect, helping figure out what the problem is. Sometimes another set of eyes can find problems that we miss ourselves, and if there is a problem you want it found as quickly as possible. Fire departments may also have a thermal imaging camera they can use to spot hot items that are otherwise not visible to the naked eye.

  • If the smell does dissipate, keep alert when in the area where it was strongest in the future and note if there are any unusual discolorations around or on any electrical appliances, heaters, or stoves. Anything found that is heat damaged or discolored from smoke in a new or unexpected way should be unplugged or switched off at the breaker box (if electrical) and inspected by a qualified service person before being used again.

If you're outdoors, or determine the smoke is coming into your home from outside:

  • First, determine if you are in immediate danger. Take a quick look around your home and check in all directions. Determine which direction the smoke is coming from, if possible, and whether or not you can see or hear fire. If you are threatened, get out as quickly as possible. Call 911 as quickly as you can, but only when you and your family are not under immediate threat. If there is no obvious and immediate threat, the points below may help figure out what to do.

  • Can you see a smoke column? Seeing a column is difficult at night, and can be impossible - even during the day - if your home is nestled in a hollow, surrounded by trees, etc. but finding one is an indication that a fire is burning. If you see a column, that is a strong indication you should call 911, particularly if you have not heard sirens.

  • Note the weather and time of year. If it is cold, people will be heating their homes, and many of us still heat with wood. Smoke from chimneys will be present at these times, and there is little to do about it. But if the temperature is warm and it isn't burn season, being concerned is entirely rational.

  • Note the kind of smoke. With practice, you can tell old, stale smoke - drifting from a remote fire - from fresh smoke, which is probably coming from a relatively nearby source. Cooking fire smoke may also have an obvious odor. Acrid, chemical, or harsh smells may also be present. Cooking smoke can probably be ignored. Stale smoke - when you recognize it - may also be ignored. (But consider looking at the smoke map on weather underground website listed in the Internet Based Information Sources document. It may show that you are in the path of drift smoke from a major fire elsewhere in the state.) Fresh, chemical, or acrid smoke is more of a concern, and even drift smoke can be a worry if you don't know the source. Again, take the time of year into consideration, though. During burn season in Santa Cruz county some of your neighbors may be disposing of trimmings and you could just be the unlucky one downwind. Alternately, you can call your local fire station and ask if they are aware of smoke in the area. Often they will know of issues or drift smoke, but they may be out on a call or a detail, and unable to answer the phone. If in doubt, call 911 and report the situation.

  • If there is time, check online sources to see if there are any fires working in your area. Fire departments don't always use sirens at night, for example, so they may already be working a fire and you might not know it yet.

With practice you will start to recognize stale smoke when it drifts over the area. Big fires in California can send smoke hundreds of miles, so we all get practice learning to recognize that sort of odor.

Also note that smoke is full of toxins and carcinogens. Even a simple wood campfire or fireplace is dumping a lot of carcinogens into the air, and a burning home is full of toxic (and carcinogenic) smoke. Firefighters wear a self contained breathing apparatus while putting out structure fires for that reason, but there are risks with wildland fires too. Poison oak smoke is dangerous, for example, and you should never burn poison oak deliberately. Inhaling poison oak smoke can set off a systemic reaction in the lungs that can require hospitalization and may even be fatal to those exposed.

For these reasons, if you are not in immediate danger but there is smoke in your area, you should consider moving indoors so you are less exposed, or get out of the area if the smoke is heavy.

Knowing whether to call 911 when all you have is an odor of smoke isn't always clear. In general, the fire department wants you to err on the side of caution and call if you are concerned, even in the middle of the night. The earlier firefighters get to the scene of a fire the less damage it will do and the easier it is to put out, so advance warning is key. But in the winter, we all smell smoke every night as people heat their homes, so calling that in would be wrong. And calling 911 for a fire that is already being worked wastes time and ties up dispatchers who are already busy. We each have to strike a balance, calling things in when we believe there is real reason to worry.

Finally, note that sometimes we think things are smoke that are not. Some skunks have an odd, chemical odor that regularly gets reported as smoke or a chemical smell in 911 calls. If you have skunks like that in your area, try to take that into account. Again, err on the side of caution, but keep it in mind.


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