A Human-Centered Approach to Mitigating Wildfire Smoke Effects

Have you ever walked past a person smoking a cigarette and instantly thought about the effects the second-hand smoke is having on you, a person who has never picked up a cigarette in their life? Now imagine experiencing a wildfire or breathing in the smoke plooms caused by one for hours or even days. For many, this is the case and the one thing on their mind is, “how is this affecting my personal health and well-being?”
In this project, our team followed a design thinking process to come up with human-centered solutions to address the detrimental health effects wildfire smoke has on those who inhale it. Here are the steps we took:

Empathize & Define:

We begin the project with data collection on the problem to prove and highlight that this is in fact a problem that needs fixing. Afterward, the team visualized the collected data to communicate and highlight important facts to the audience.

Ideate & Prototype:

Our team’s ideation and prototyping phases revolved around finding a solution to ease the concerns of people who have experienced wildfires and breathed the toxic air caused by them. After thoughtfully considering it, we refined the question we wished to answer down to, “How can we ease people’s concerns regarding detrimental effects to health caused by ingested wildfire smoke?”

We brainstormed two approaches; a physical device to give people instant peace of mind and a recommended policy implementation to incentivize preventative measures against forest fires and therefore wildfire smoke.
The physical device we brainstormed is a breathalyzer, but for carbon monoxide. The most dangerous characteristic of any type of smoke is carbon monoxide because of its ability to deprive the body’s organs of their necessary oxygen intake and because of the ease and swiftness with which it enters our bodies. The mere thought of this can be frightening, especially during a wildfire where giant clouds of smoke (ridden with CO) are fast approaching. Although forms of this device exist, they are either very expensive (extensive research showed values in the 3 to 4-digit ranges) or require a specialist, which might not be plausible during or after a wildfire. This is where the CO-breathalyzer could “eases concerns” about people’s health.
The second idea our team found was a proposition made by Michael Wara, a lawyer for Stanford University’s Institute for the Environment. According to Wara, the Clean Air Act of 1970 (a federal law created to set standards and regulate hazardous emissions to protect public health) does not count wildfire smoke as air pollution! This implies that the EPA (the agency responsible for protecting people and the environment) has no legal obligation to regulate forest fires because the smoke caused by them (according to the Clean Air Act previously mentioned) causes no detriment to human health. By tweaking the Clean Air Act to include forest-fire-caused smoke as an air pollutant, Wara and our team believe the EPA would become more involved with forest fire management and supervision, resulting in increased preventative measures against forest fires and therefore wildfire smoke.


For sake of time in the semester, no testing was done on any of our prototypes.