For the second year in a row, the province of British Columbia has been dealt state-of-emergency level forest fires. In 2018 alone, more than 1.325 million hectares have burned due to BC wildfires and many of these fires continue as we return to school and look to the start of autumn. Homes, buildings, businesses and agricultural sites have all been lost due to the blazes, but these are not the only impacts from BC fires.
With forest fires of epic proportions also raging to the south in California, the pressure on air quality along the Pacific Coast and throughout BC has been significant. In early August 2017, Kamloops had a record high air quality rating of 49 on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is normally considered the highest risk – that is almost 5 times the worst quality level on the scale! If the last two years are any indicators of the future (and if there’s a recurrence in poor air quality this year before BC forest fires are extinguished) it’s good to know what to do when smoke deteriorates the air we breathe.
Who is at Risk?
Generally, healthy adults are not at a high risk in situations of reduced air quality. That being said, when the number hits 7 or higher, everyone should pay attention as bad air quality can cause irritation throughout the respiratory tract. Those who absolutely should be aware of the air quality at all times in their region are parents of young children (whose lungs are still developing), anyone with an existing respiratory or heart condition and older adults.
Seven Steps to Staying Safe When BC Fires Impact Air Quality
1. Check the air quality forecast.
The Government of Canada Air Quality Health Index is one of the best sources. When air quality is outside of what’s normal for a region, many radio and TV stations as well as newspapers will provide forecasts and updates. On the scale of 1 to 10, anything above 7 is considered high risk.
The Air Quality Health Index takes a variety of factors into consideration (such as the BC wildfire status) to determine the air quality forecast.
Those with asthma, a respiratory condition or heart disease, should check with their doctor if the air quality ratings are expected to deteriorate. A doctor familiar with your condition and lifestyle will be able to help determine other preventative measures to keep your respiratory health in line.
2. Avoid exercising outdoors.
This isn’t just for those at high risk either. When the air quality numbers are high, no one should be breathing heavily outdoors. The long terms risks aren’t huge for a normally healthy person, but as mentioned, the irritation isn’t worth the effort. Take your exercise routine to a gym or other indoor area. Kids should play inside (even though we want them to get outside during the summer) when the air quality number is past 7. Past 5, make sure they aren’t outside for extended periods and aren’t doing anything too active – remember, you don’t want anyone breathing heavily in smoky air.
Even in low to moderate air quality numbers, avoid high traffic and high pollution areas when breathing heavy – there’s no sense creating a breathing problem unnecessarily.
Unfortunately, dust masks won’t help because the smoke particles are too fine for the mesh material. Even surgical masks aren’t very effective unless they are fitted properly to your face. When these masks aren’t used properly, they can actually make it harder to breathe which makes the issue that much worse.
3. Consider an indoor air purifier for your home and make sure it is properly maintained.
Without regularly cleaned filters, the purifier isn’t effective against pollutants like smoke. Be sure to keep your windows and doors closed when the smoke is bad to prevent indoor pollution as much as possible. If you find you simply can’t stay indoors with the doors and windows shut, find a large, commercially-filtered building with air-conditioning that you can stay in.
4. Obviously if there is a fire ban, that means no backyard or campground burning of any kind.
Until air quality levels are normal and fire bans are lifted, don’t even burn to cook food. When it comes to interior spaces, avoid candles, fireplaces and other sources of air pollution – even with an air purifier, those at risk should avoid these items at all times. Plus, at no time should you ever burn trash – not even when the fire bans are lifted. Garbage contains excessive pollutants beyond smoke and other irritants.
5. When smoke is heavy and air quality ratings are past 5, it’s best to keep car windows rolled up when travelling and use the recirculated air setting on the air conditioner.
Have the car’s engine and cabin air filters checked every month or two when the air quality is higher than its normal range. Like the in-home air purifier, if these filters are full of pollutants, they can’t continue doing the job of keeping your air clean.
6. Spring and summer are when we tend to do the most work around the yard and exterior of our homes.
Unfortunately, this also coincides with the traditional timing for BC wildfires. Those at higher risk should avoid yard work during high air quality ratings, but those who aren’t at risk who feel the need to get our and “whack weeds” should use electric powered yard tools rather than gas power in order to reduce the chances of irritation and breathing difficulties.
7. Perhaps the best advice of all is to always use proper caution around wildfires.
While many people want to take care of their home and believe they can get away if needed, evacuation orders should always be obeyed – especially by those at high risk. In fact, if you live in a region where the smoke is particularly bad, it might be advisable to stay in another region if possible.
Caution around fires also means not lighting them during ban periods and taking complete responsibility for any fires you light. Whether the fire is smoking, or not, it takes a lot more water and time to cool a burn site than many people believe. If you can’t touch it with your hand, it’s still too hot. Be sure your fire pit is always properly extinguished and isn’t the cause of another BC wildfire.