The New West: Smoke In The Sky, A Purifier At Home


By Mark Kreidler

When the Camp Fire began to rage in Paradise, Calif., last November, the owners of the family-run Collier Hardware store in nearby Chico faced a situation unlike any they’d seen.

A business that might welcome 200 customers on an average day, Collier was suddenly dealing with five times that number — “and they all wanted the same thing,” co-owner Steve Lucena said.

Alarmed by dense smoke, shoppers were snapping up portable air purifiers and breathing masks in staggering numbers. Collier Hardware sold nearly 60,000 adult-sized masks in a couple of weeks, and gave away thousands more that were specially designed for children.

“With the purifiers, we had multiple people unloading them from the truck, and they were sold before we could get them all the way into the store,” Lucena said. “People didn’t care what model it was or how much it cost. We’d normally sell four to six in a year, and we sold 100 in a day.”

As hot, dry weather settles upon the West this summer, fears of massive wildfires — and the smoke they produce — are again taking hold. It’s true not only in areas directly threatened by fire, but even those hundreds of miles away where people expect to be shrouded in lung-clogging smoke.

The health risks are real, and they’re already part of a future that public-health experts — and those who sell air-quality products — are anticipating.

“We aren’t depending on wildfire season to make a profit, because we don’t hope for another year of fires,” said Joceline Barron, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles-based Rabbit Air, which makes portable purifiers.

“But we know the market does profit from that season,” she said. “When the wildfires were going on, our phones were ringing all the time.”