People warned against preparing for possible “intense smoking incidents” due to forest fires in BC

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VANCOUVER – Some parts of British Columbia have already been hit by smoke from dozens of forest fires that are burning across the province. While the skies over Metro Vancouver remains clear for now, that may change and people are being warned to prepare.

BC Center for Disease Control’s Scientific Director for Environmental Health Sarah Henderson said it wouldn’t be surprising to see a repeat of the conditions from 2017 and 2018, when days of thick smoke blanketed the Lower Mainland.

“We ask people to be aware that there can be some heavy smoking episodes,” said Henderson. “We saw in both 2017 and 2018 that the only part of British Columbia that wasn’t very smoky was Haida Gwaii.”

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

“There are many different things in the smoke from wildfire. It’s a very complex form of air pollution, ”Henderson said, adding that it also contains particulate matter that can cause inflammation and irritate the lungs. “In previous major forest fires, we’ve had days and weeks where pretty much the entire province was covered in smoke … so when it smokes like that, everyone is breathing pretty polluted air.”

According to Henderson, now is the time to think about ways to keep their homes and themselves safe from smoke, including air purifiers and properly fitting respirators.

“Can you consider getting a portable air purifier? If not, you can put together a box fan and filter to filter the air in your home and find a room to dig for a little respite, ”Henderson said, adding that the BCCDC has provided instructions online to get a lower cost homemade box fan air filter instead of a commercial air purifier. “One of the reasons we love to talk about preparedness is because these items may now be a little more available than in the middle of a heavy smoking incident.”

Henderson found that very few portable air conditioners have HEPA filtration, and those with a single hose can also draw unfiltered air inside.

“Overall, when it’s hot and smoky and you can, the best possible combination is to have a portable air conditioner and portable air purifier in the same room for a cooler, cleaner space,” said Henderson.

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

“If you don’t have such a respirator and are using a disposable face mask or a three-ply cloth mask, you can still filter out the particles pretty well using some of these tips and tricks to make sure your mask fits really well,” said Henderson . “Again, the key is that the air you breathe goes through the material of the mask, not around it.”

Henderson added that people who want to buy an air purifier also need to know that they are not all created equal.

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

Annie Seagram, an air quality meteorologist for the British Columbia Department of the Environment, said the wildfire situation can change quickly, making it difficult to predict where and when smoke might arrive.

“You could say we know about the smoke we have right now and where it could go, but we also need to recognize that new fires can break out,” she said. “In some regions there could be some precipitation in the coming days, so that there will be cloud formation, but also lightning strikes and new fires. So it can be very difficult to understand how things will change, where and when they will change. “

She recommended that people follow the smoke and air quality reports for their area as it is a “day-to-day” situation.