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Category "Wildfires"

28Jun

Smoky summers: Health experts extend their warnings to pregnant women

by admin

When wildfire smoke enveloped Metro Vancouver last summer, Nikki Rogers noticed soot collecting on the walls of her White Rock condo and closed her windows to keep the bad air out.

“I tried to stay inside because I did not enjoy being outside,” recalled Rogers, who works in a hair salon. “I would never do any kind of exercising or jogging or walking outside because anything that promotes heavy breathing outdoors would be terrible.”

This summer she will take even greater precautions because she is pregnant. And this is the first year that Vancouver Coastal Health and Metro Vancouver have included pregnant women on their list of people especially vulnerable to wildfire smoke, along with asthmatics, the elderly, and people with chronic heart and lung conditions.

Rogers said she will research the best way to keep herself and her baby safe, but laments that wildfire smoke is one more thing expectant mothers will likely need to worry about this July and August.

“We shouldn’t have months of just smoke in the air. That’s just awful,” she said. “Every year it gets worse and worse. It is just getting out of hand.”


Nikki Rogers, who is pregnant, will keep the windows of her White Rock condo closed this summer to keep any wildfire smoke out.

Experts believe British Columbians are about to experience another hot, smoke-filled summer, basing their prediction on the higher-than-average temperatures and drought so far in 2019 — a trend that is expected to continue.

“We expect increased wildfire and smoke risk, and that includes in the southwest where we are,” said a Metro Vancouver air-quality engineer, Francis Ries.

Just in the last week, a stubborn wildfire on steep terrain near Lions Bay snarled traffic on the busy Sea to Sky Highway for days, and a fire broke out Monday near Pender Harbour on the Sechelt Peninsula.


A helicopter dumps sea water on June 23 on a wildfire near Lions Bay.

NICK PROCAYLO /

PNG

Fires started earlier in 2019

Hotter, drier conditions contributed to fires in early spring, far sooner than in other years. Since April 1, the B.C. Wildfire Service has recorded 377 fires that have burned more than 110 square kilometres.

The summers of 2017 and 2018 were the worst on record for smoky skies — a provincial state of emergency was declared both years over wildfires — and much of the haze in Metro Vancouver drifted in from big fires in other parts of B.C.

The smoke led officials to issue a record number of air-quality advisories, and give extensive advice on how residents should try to remain healthy.

This year, local health and municipal agencies added pregnant women to the list of those most vulnerable to the smoke after lobbying by Sarah Henderson, an environmental health scientist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

She advocated the change based on an “evidence review” and academic research that showed mothers exposed to extreme wildfire smoke give birth to smaller babies.

A University of California, Berkeley study found that pregnant women breathing in wildfire smoke during their second trimester in 2003, a terrible fire season in Southern California, had babies that were about 10 grams lighter than women not exposed to smoke. The results were small but “significant,” researchers found, because they showed “climate change can affect health.”

Ten grams would be enough to “push some babies into a low-birth-weight category,” added Henderson, noting undersized infants can face challenges.

Based on pregnancy and population statistics, Henderson predicts a repeat of last summer’s smoky skies could lead to 20 babies in B.C. being born a bit smaller. It’s not a big number, but one that could hurt 20 families.

“And that is kind of the tip of the iceberg in some ways because nobody has looked at preterm birth or malformations, if that smoke exposure happens to pregnant women,” added Henderson, who is also an associate professor in the UBC school of population and public health.

She has applied for funding to do her own study of the outcome of women who were pregnant in B.C.’s Interior, where the smoke was the thickest during the last two summers.


Sarah Henderson of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

Wildfire smoke is a toxic, chemical soup

Wildfire smoke contains many pollutants, but the most dangerous to human health is fine particulate matter, a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets that are generally 2.5 micrometers or less in size — about one-30th the diameter on a strand of hair.

“The very small particles can be inhaled deeply into your lungs and then get into your blood stream, and irritate and lead to inflammation,” said Emily Peterson, a Vancouver Coastal Health environmental health scientist.

A typical summer day in Metro Vancouver would feature 10 or 15 micrograms a cubic metre of these fine particulates, but during the height of last summer’s smoky skies the quantity jumped tenfold.

Smoky air makes it harder for lungs to get oxygen into the blood stream, and it can irritate the respiratory system and cause inflammation in other parts of the body. Common symptoms include eye irritation, sore throat, coughing, wheezy breathing and headaches, and there is an increased risk of infections for some, such as pneumonia in older people and ear infections in children.

At-risk people — including those with chronic lung or heart conditions and now pregnant women — should “pay attention to the smoke much earlier” this summer, said the VCH medical health officer, Dr. James Lu.

“We do start with the vulnerable population, but if the smoke (concentration) is high enough we do encourage people who are normally healthy to take precautions as well,” Lu added.

Among the precautions backed by medical experts: Stay inside places with filtered air, such as most community centres, libraries or malls; drive with the windows up, the air conditioning on, and the recirculate-air button activated to reduce the amount of smoke getting into your car; and drink lots of water.

One expert calculated that people doing exercise or working outside during the height of the wildfire smoke could inhale the equivalent of two packages of cigarettes a day.

Because most people typically spend 90 per cent of their days indoors, Henderson highly recommends buying a portable air cleaner, which plugs into a wall socket and can be moved from room to room. These purifiers remove 40 to 80 per cent of the fine particles found in smoke, but people with respiratory conditions are encouraged to buy higher-performing HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters, the Centre for Disease Control says.

If people are outside and want to wear a mask, Henderson said the best option is a well-fitted N95 respirator. A surgical mask can offer limited protection. A cloth mask is close to useless at keeping out the fine particles in smoke.

Doctors’ visits, asthma prescriptions skyrocket

Most people can manage irritations from smoke without medical attention, but those with severe symptoms should see a doctor.

Wildfire smoke caused a slight rise last summer in the number of people visiting Vancouver Coastal Health emergency rooms, although the increase wasn’t even across all communities: North Vancouver and Richmond had more hospital visits, while other cities did not, said Lu.

“What we did see were increased visits with respiratory symptoms, asthma and people short of breath,” the medical health officer told Postmedia.


Dr. James Lu of Vancouver Coastal Health.

The B.C. Health Ministry could not provide information about higher traffic in emergency rooms in other health regions, saying its data does not let it differentiate between treatment specifically for wildfire smoke and other respiratory issues.

However, Centre for Disease Control statistics suggest medical services across B.C. were harder hit when wildfire smoke was heavy. In the summers of 2017 and 2018, 45,000 extra doses of asthma medication were dispensed and there were 10,000 extra visits to doctors for asthma-related conditions in B.C., Henderson said.

“It does stack up, the impact is quite extreme,” she said. “On a very smoky day in Metro Vancouver, there were 350 extra doctor visits.”

The Centre for Disease Control tabulates this information daily in the B.C. Asthma Prediction System, which was launched after previous severe wildfire seasons. The surveillance system tracks asthma-related doctor visits and the prescriptions filled for lung conditions, and is used to warn health officials about the anticipated effects of wildfire smoke.

This summer is also expected to experience a boost in asthma treatments, given what happened in May after a significant wildfire near Fort St. John. “We had this one day of smoke in Fort St John, and the asthma visits skyrocketed,” Henderson said.

During the past few years, Vancouver Costal Health has sent reminders to family physicians to help their patients get ready for smoke expected in July and August — such as ensuring medications for patients with chronic heart or lung disease are up to date.

“I think what we are hoping for is to perhaps educate the public and primary-care physicians in helping people to be prepared so that they don’t really need to come to the emergency,” Lu said.

More than 3,000 ‘smoky skies’ bulletins issued

The provincial Environment Ministry issues “smoky skies” warning bulletins when wildfire smoke gets bad in all areas of the province except Metro Vancouver, which releases its own air quality advisories.

In 2017, 1,646 air-quality advisories were issued across B.C., and that jumped to 1,742 in 2018. There have been 69 warnings so far this year, but that number will likely increase as the majority of 2018 bulletins were issued between late July and late August.

The province monitors 63 regions, and six of those have had 100 or more smoky skies bulletins since 2017 due to bad fires nearby, including Quesnel, Penticton, Prince George, Williams Lake and Kamloops. Other communities in B.C.’s Interior and the Cariboo region have also been hard hit, with just under 100 bulletins issued in the last two years in Vernon, Kelowna, Cranbrook and 100 Mile House.


A wildfire near Fraser Lake in May.

Submitted /

B.C. Wildfire Service

Only Haida Gwaii, off B.C.’s northwest coast, has had no smoke-related air quality warnings since 2017.

The Environment Ministry was unable to provide information about how many advisories it issued in years with far fewer forest fires than 2017 and 2018. But statistics from Metro Vancouver indicate those two years were off the charts.

There were 22 days in Metro Vancouver last summer with poor air quality due to forest fires, mainly between late July and late August. In 2017, it was 19 days of unhealthy amounts of smoke.

The region’s figures, dating back to 1996, showed no other years with near that number of hazy days, the closest being 10 days in 2009 and 2015, when there were also some forest fires. In several years, including 2011, 2013 and 2016, there were no days with poor air quality.

Metro Vancouver’s advisories show much of the air pollution came from forest fires in other parts of the province, but the air was also affected by some local blazes, such as a bog fire in Richmond and a barge blaze in Surrey.

No air quality advisories have been issued so far in 2019; Metro Vancouver said the smoke residents smelled earlier this week from the Lions Bay fire was “below advisory thresholds.”

Ozone pollution rises due to wildfires

Metro Vancouver’s summer 2019 outlook warns of the potential for increased ozone due to higher temperatures and wildfires. Ozone is described as “good up high; bad nearby” — ozone in the atmosphere protects from UV radiation, but when lower to the ground it damages lungs and destroys ecosystems according to a Colorado State University academic paper, Ozone Levels Elevated in Presence of Wildfire Smoke.

“We’ve seen high ozone levels at monitoring stations which we never, under normal circumstances, expect to have high ozone,” said Metro Vancouver’s Ries. “We almost never have high ozone in the western part of the valley, downtown Vancouver and through into Burnaby,” he said, except in 2017 and 2018 when “the highest ozone levels we received were in that part of the region.”

Ries said more studies, including ones that focus on B.C., are making a strong link between climate change and the exacerbation of wildfire seasons.


Francis Ries, Metro Vancouver air quality engineer, and Roger Quan, Metro’s director of air quality and climate change.

In 2017, 65,000 British Columbians were evacuated and 509 buildings burned during wildfires that scorched 12,000 square km of land. The 2018 forest fires were even more destructive, consuming 13,500 sq. km — although fewer people were evacuated (6,000) and fewer structures lost (158).

Over the last two summers, the provincial government grossly outspent its wildfire budgets — by 10 times in 2017, when it cost more than $650 million to fight the fires. This year, the NDP is trying to be better prepared for the unknown by nearly doubling its wildfire budget, boosting it from $64 million in 2018 to $101 million.

Smoky summers in Vancouver may become “the new normal,” if not every year then at least every other year, VCH’s Lu predicted.

“We do not expect this to go away. This is going to be a way of life, unfortunately,” he said. “So I think the need to include that in your consideration of how to stay healthy is important.”

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Twitter: @loriculbert




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21Jun

City of Vancouver makes plans for a smoky summer

by admin

The City of Vancouver is preparing for a smoky summer, making plans to create “respite areas” at several communities centres, libraries and non-market-housing units.

The public spaces could act as clean air havens for people who have health concerns and lack access to an air-conditioned space during air quality advisories. The rooms would be equipped with portable HEPA filters and some would also serve as cooling centres, according to a statement from the City of Vancouver.

Experts are warning that it’s likely to be another hot, smoke-filled summer in B.C. this year. B.C. Wildfire Service information shows the province has seen increased drought and higher-than-average temperatures in 2019, with the trend expected to continue.

“Obviously, we expect increased wildfire and smoke risk, and that includes in the southwest … And increased temperatures are likely to drive higher ozone formation, and so we expect there may be more potential for that this summer as well,” Metro Vancouver air-quality engineer Francis Ries told Postmedia on Tuesday.

Ozone, a pollutant that when mixed with fine particulate matter creates smog, often irritates the eyes, nose and throat, and over time can cause permanent lung damage.

Ries said more studies, including ones that focus on B.C., are making a strong link between climate change and the exacerbation of wildfire seasons.

“As we continue to see further warming, we expect that the patterns we are seeing now are likely to continue or perhaps even get more extreme,” he said.

The summers of 2017 and 2018 were the worst on record for smoky skies across B.C.

In Metro Vancouver, there were 22 days last July and August under air-quality advisories, three more than in the summer of 2017.

The last two summers have far exceeded the number of advisories issued in any other year since 1996, the first year for which data is available. Several years, including 2016, had zero air-quality advisories.

University of B.C. public health professor Dr. Michael Brauer said many public buildings are already equipped with air conditioning and filters that provide effective relief on smoky days. Simply closing windows can significantly improve air quality, while even a small filter can remove particulate matter. Higher-quality filters may require more energy, but buildings could swap them in on days when the air quality is poor.

Brauer said the long-term health impacts of one or two weeks of smoky skies each summer are likely very small, but if that time stretches into one or two months — as it is threatening to do in some parts of the B.C. Interior — it would be “concerning.”

“We know that day-in-day-out exposure (to pollution) can be life-shortening,” he said, alluding to studies in other countries where pollution is a significant problem. “It can causes diseases to get worse, and accelerates the progression of disease.”

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With files by Lori Culbert

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20Jun

Reschedule Vancouver fireworks if air quality poor? Not so fast

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Team U.K. puts on a show at the 2017 Honda Celebration of Light in Vancouver.


Francis Georgian / PNG files

When wildfire smoke settles over English Bay this summer, as experts predict it will, there’s not much Vancouver can do about it.

But the city shouldn’t be adding any more ingredients to the “toxic soup,” says Kitsilano resident Judith Maxie, who wants council to reschedule fireworks events if the air quality is poor.

“You don’t have to be a scientist to see that tossing all those fireworks into the soup isn’t a good thing,” she said Thursday. “This is something we can actually change.”

Maxie doesn’t want to ban fireworks altogether — “over the years we’ve loved attending them,” she said — but wants the city to hold events like the Honda Celebration of Light at a different time of year, or put a contingency plan in place in case it’s smoky during the annual Canada Day fireworks.

Dr. Christopher Carlsten said he considers fireworks pollution “a significant issue,” particularly for people who are sensitive to poor air quality. A number of case reports have shown an increase in asthma attacks and irritation in people with lung disease during fireworks events.

“There’s not a lot of good defences for them in a health sense,” said the Vancouver physician. “If we’re just talking about health, I’d say don’t do it.” But the University of B.C. professor and head of respiratory medicine admitted that argument doesn’t factor in the “cultural equation” or the enjoyment derived from the spectacle.

Carlsten, who holds the Canada research chair in occupational and environmental lung disease, said much of the research on fireworks pollution has been done in countries where festivals last for days and fine particulate pollution accumulates at ground level.

“It’s quite clear that fireworks do affect air quality, but in Canada the events do tend to be short,” he said.


Vancouver’s Honda Celebration of Light show. ‘It’s quite clear that fireworks do affect air quality, but in Canada the events do tend to be short,’ says Dr. Christopher Carlsten, a UBC professor and head of respiratory medicine.

Francis Georgian /

PNG files

University of B.C. public health professor Dr. Michael Brauer said Vancouver’s fireworks shows happen high above the ground, which can help the particulate dissipate sooner, especially if wind conditions are favourable.

“It’s a transient increase,” he said of the rise in fine particulate pollutants associated with fireworks. “For most people, it shouldn’t be a concern, but for those with asthma or heart and lung concerns, it would be best to minimize exposure.”

Metro Vancouver air quality advisor Geoff Doerksen said pollution from fireworks is “short-lived and dissipates quickly,” and most years it doesn’t reach the ground. Any localized impacts to air quality tend to return to normal levels within a few hours.

Doerksen advised people who are concerned to avoid viewing areas and close their windows if they live in the area.

In a statement, the City of Vancouver said it did not receive any complaints about air quality during last year’s fireworks events and “is not considering cancelling or rescheduling fireworks that occur on Canada Day or at the Celebration of Lights.”

The summers of 2017 and 2018 were the worst on record for smoky skies across B.C.


Dr. Christopher Carlsten.

In Metro Vancouver, there were 22 days last July and August under air-quality advisories, three more than in the summer of 2017.

The last two summers have far exceeded the number of advisories issued in any other year since 1996, the first year for which data is available. Several years, including 2016, had zero air-quality advisories.

In 2015, a U.S. study published in Atmospheric Environment found that levels of fine particulate matter are elevated in urban areas by an average of 42 per cent during the 24-hour period starting with a fireworks event.

“That was a national average across 315 monitoring sites; it actually varies from place to place and year to year,” lead author Dian Seidel, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Postmedia at the time.

One monitoring station located near the site of a display registered a 370-per-cent increase in fine particles.

Meanwhile, a study led by researchers from the University of Montreal took recorded PM2.5 concentrations as much as 1,000 times normal on single readings within the smoke plume.

Readings from monitoring stations set up at “breathing level” near the ground showed PM2.5 concentrations about 50 times normal levels during the display. Elevated concentrations of fine particles were detected as far away as 14 kilometres, suggesting the particles remain in the atmosphere for “a long period of time,” probably days.

With Postmedia files

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18Jun

Will this be another summer of wildfire smoke and poor air quality in B.C.?

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Shell Road in Richmond was hit by a wildfire on July 27, 2018.


Francis Georgian / PNG

All indications suggest British Columbians should prepare for another smoky summer this year, experts warned today.

B.C. Wildfire information shows the province has so far this year seen increased drought and higher-than-average temperatures, which are expected to continue. Experts are predicting a greater risk of wildfires and smoke in the province this summer, particularly in the southwest, which includes Metro Vancouver.

Metro Vancouver air quality engineer Francis Reis said more studies are making a strong link between climate change and the exacerbation of wildfire seasons.

“As we continue to see further warming, we can expect the patterns we are seeing now to continue or even get more extreme,” he said.

Residents are reminded to try to stay indoors when air quality bulletins are issued.

The summers of 2017 and 2018 were the worst on record for smoky skies in B.C., caused by wildfires. This led to warnings that people take caution when outside, especially those with asthma, lung conditions, the elderly and pregnant women.

The hot, dry spring has many worried that 2019 could also bring hazy skies that are bad for residents’ health.

More to come…

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6Feb

Smoke from wildfire is like a ‘chemical soup,’ says fire researcher

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VANCOUVER — Inhaling smoke from a wildfire can be equal to smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes a day depending on its thickness, says a researcher studying wildfires in Western Canada.

Mike Flannigan, a professor with the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta, said the smoke is like a “chemical soup” that can be trapped in the lungs and cause a number of health issues.

“They are all kinds of particles, mercury, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane … there’s a whole long list.”

Depending on the size of the particles, they get trapped in the lungs, accumulate over time and cause “all kinds of problems,” Flannigan said.

“The more we are finding out about smoke and health, the more we are finding out it is bad for us, which isn’t a surprise but its worse than we thought.”

Sarah Henderson, a senior environmental health scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, said the smaller the particles, the worse they are.

Both Flannigan and Henderson will make presentations at the BC Lung Association’s annual workshop on air quality and health on Wednesday.

Their presentation is timely after extreme wildfire seasons in British Columbia in 2017 and 2018. Smoke from forest fires last year reached Atlantic Canada and even as far away as Ireland.

Emissions vary depending on the differences in fuel, burning conditions and other environmental factors, Flannigan said.

The spread hinges on how high smoke and fire columns rise. Winds can carry the particles north to Europe and Asia, across the world and back again, Flannigan said.

“They can travel long distances for long periods of time.”

Henderson said most people living in polluted places face a risk of chronic diseases and slightly shorter life expectancy but that data comes from cities such as New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world.

The air quality in British Columbia is “extremely good” except for a few weeks during wildfire season, she said.

“If we have a season like 2017 and 2018, year after year for the next 20 years, we probably will have a health impact on the population but we don’t know what that will be yet,” Henderson said.

People should protect themselves from the smoke by spending time indoors, using air filters and not exercising strenuously when outside, she said.

In 2017, the area burned in B.C. was 12,000 square kilometres, which was a record until last summer when 13,000 square kilometres of the province was consumed by fire. The B.C. government declared a state of emergency for both seasons.

The intensity of wildfires, as shown through remote sensing, is also increasing, Flannigan said, noting that as fuels get drier it is easier for fires to start and spread.

And the wildfire season is also starting much sooner, he said.

In Alberta the wildfire season used to begin April 1 but it’s now starting March 1 and is lasting longer.

“In Canada our area burned has doubled since the 1970s. And my colleagues and I attribute this to — I can’t be any clearer — human-caused climate change,” he said. “Our climate is changing and this has affected fire activity in Canada, western United States and other parts of the world.”

The last two years saw over four per cent of forested area burn in B.C. and the province is nowhere close to exhausting how much can burn, Flannigan said.

Historically, he said, it would have been unlikely that the province would have seen a third bad fire season.

“But its entirely possible,” he said.

Climate change is making the jet stream weaker, which is causing hot, dry summer days, which are conducive to fire activity, he said.

“Will things get worse? Absolutely. Not every year. Some years will be cooler, some years will be wetter,” Flannigan said.

“On an average we’re going to see a lot more fire, and they’re going to be longer fire seasons, more intense, and the primary reason why climate change influences fire activity is that the warmer it gets the more fire we see.”


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