With another smoky summer anticipated, officials with Metro Vancouver held a briefing Tuesday to show off air quality monitoring equipment and advise the public to get a head start on preparing for the season.
The B.C. Wildfire Service’s summer outlook has predicted yet another abnormally hot and dry summer, and a recent study by scientists with Environment and Climate Change Canada concluded that human-caused climate was a key driver of the recent extreme fire seasons.
The fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) contained in the smoke from those fires — mixed with traditional pollution — has officials with Metro Vancouver concerned.
“Three out of the last four summers have been exceptional in terms of wildfire smoke impacts in our region, so it is hard to say exactly what that normal looks like now,” said Metro Vancouver senior project engineer Francis Reis.
WATCH: How to protect yourself from the smoke caused by wildfires
Air quality advisories in the region can be issued for two different reasons: high concentrations of ground-level ozone, which is often produced by local sources of pollution such as vehicle emissions or solvents reacting with air and sunlight, and PM 2.5.
Following two consecutive years in which the region has been forced to issue with record-length air quality advisories, driven in part by the growing impact of the now-annual influx of wildfire smoke, Reis said it’s now crucial for residents to be ready.
“Given the kind of summers we’ve had the last two summers, in terms of days of impact, significant widlfire smoke and ground-level ozone, we feel that there has been an elevated level of air pollution risk and a very elevated level of interest,” he said.
“It’s much better for people to take some measures before the smoke shows up, rather than it suddenly being a panic once we do have smoky skies.”
While the long-term effects of wildfire smoke are not well known, regional health officials aren’t taking any risks and say there’s no question poor air quality can cause problems — particularly for vulnerable people — in the short term.
WATCH: Researchers gather to study lingering effects of wildfire smoke
Vancouver Coastal Health environmental health scientist Emily Peterson said in addition to causing breathing problems, the particles associated with wildfire smoke can actually cause problems such as inflammation when the body’s own immune system attacks them as if they were an illness.
“For people with chronic lung conditions and heart conditions, we ask that they come up with a plan with their family physicians, that they make sure any rescue medications on hand and that they’re well-prepared to have those in stock at their home,” she said.
Part of that plan should include knowing potential sources of clean air such as local libraries or community centres. She said people at higher risk should also consider possibly purchasing a HEPA home air filtration system.
Air filtration masks rated N95 may also help some people, if they have a good fit, she said.
Metro Vancouver’s drive to prepare the public for a smoky summer comes after the BC Centre for Disease Control launched a new new hub with health information for residents, with fact sheets on health concerns, air cleaners and tips on how to prepare for the anticipated smoke.