People warned to prepare for possible 'intense smoke episodes' due to B.C. wildfires

Some parts of British Columbia are already being affected by smoke from the dozens of wildfires burning across the province. While skies above Metro Vancouver remain clear for now, that could change, and people are being warned to get prepared.

The BC Centre for Disease Control’s scientific director of environmental health, Sarah Henderson, said it wouldn’t be surprising to see a repeat of conditions experienced in 2017 and 2018, when thick smoke blanketed the Lower Mainland for days.

“We’re asking people to be aware that there may be some intense smoke episodes coming,” Henderson said. “We saw in both 2017 and 2018 really the only part of British Columbia that wasn’t very smoky was Haida Gwaii.”

People at higher risk include those with underlying chronic conditions, the elderly, pregnant women, and infants and children – all groups advised to reduce their exposure to smoke.

“There’s lots of different things in wildfire smoke. It’s a very complex form of air pollution,” Henderson said, and added it also includes fine particulates, which can cause inflammation as well as irritate the lungs. “In previous severe wildfire seasons, we’ve had periods of days and weeks where pretty much the entire province was covered in smoke...so when it’s smoky like that, everyone is breathing quite polluted air.”

Henderson said says people may want to think now about how to protect their home and themselves from smoke, including air purifiers and properly fitting respirator-style masks.

“Are you able to consider the purchase of a portable air cleaner? If not, are you able to put together a box fan and a filter to filter the air in your home and to find one room where you can seek some reprieve,” Henderson said, and added the BCCDC has provided instructions online to make a lower cost home-made box fan air filter, in lieu of a commercial air purifier. “One of the reasons we like to talk about preparedness is that these items may be a little more available now than they would be in the middle of a severe smoke event.”

Henderson noted very few portable air conditioners have HEPA-level filtration, and those with a single hose may also pull unfiltered air inside.

“Overall, the best possible combination if it’s hot and smoky, and you’re able to, is to run a portable air conditioner and a portable air cleaner in the same room to get that cooler, cleaner space,” Henderson said.

People who have bought N95 masks during the pandemic may also find them useful in wildfire smoke, according to Henderson, as long as the fit is good.

“If you don’t have a respirator like that, and you’re using a disposable face mask or a three-layer cloth mask, you can still do a pretty good job of filtering out the particles, if you use some of those tips and tricks to make sure your mask fits really well,” Henderson said. “Again, the key is that the air that you’re breathing is passing through the material of the mask, and not around it.”

Henderson added people who intend who shop for an air purifier also need to know they’re not all created equal.

“You’re looking for something with HEPA filtration,” Henderson said. “You want to make sure that it’s adequately sized for the room that want to use it in, so that the clean air delivery rate is the right rate for your room size.”

Annie Seagram, an air quality meteorologist with B.C.'s Ministry of Environment, said the wildfire situation is something that can change rapidly, making it difficult to predict where and when smoke could arrive.

“You might say we know about the smoke we have right now, and where that could go, but we also have to realize that new fires can start,” she said. “There might be some precipitation coming in to some regions over the coming days, so clouding, but that also gives way to lightning strikes and new fires forming. So that is why it can be very difficult to understand how things are going to change, where they’re going to change, and when.”

She recommended people keep track of smoke and air quality notifications for their area, as it’s a “day by day situation."