Okanagan bans open burns, campfires to curb smoke during COVID-19 pandemic

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With wildfire season on the horizon for British Columbia, there are concerns that smoke pollution will only make the COVID-19 pandemic worse.

Although the region is months away from the height of fire season, efforts are already underway to keep the air clear.

However, some of the limits on fires will also curb wildfire prevention efforts and critics are wondering if enough is being done to cut down on smoke.

Limits on open burning and camp fires

In late March, the province banned new open burns till at least April 15 in many areas of British Columbia, including the Okanagan, saying lower air quality could mean more COVID-19 infections and more severe cases.

“There is strong evidence that exposure to air pollution increases susceptibility to respiratory viral infections by decreasing immune function,” the province said in a statement announcing the limits on open burning.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Campfire ban announced for Central Okanagan to help battle COVID-19

Thompson Rivers University professor Dr. Michael Mehta, who researches air quality, said the province’s stance is backed up by previous research in the field.

Mehta said we can look to research on SARS as an example of how air quality impacted previous pandemics.

“They found that with SARS, communities that had significantly higher levels of air pollution, the mortality rate, the death rate was almost double,” Mehta said.

READ MORE: Coronavirus cited as reason for temporary burning ban throughout Okanagan and Shuswap

In the central Okanagan the regional district has also banned campfires to protect the public as well as firefighters.

“Every time [firefighters] have to go out to a burning complaint or report of smoke is another time when they can’t maintain their physical distancing and that means that they are at greater risk,” explained West Kelowna fire chief Jason Brolund.
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Prescribed burns cancelled or delayed

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Fire departments sometimes light their own burns to reduce the fuel load and prevent wildfires later on.

However, several Okanagan fire halls have also delayed or canceled that work due to the pandemic.

READ MORE: Air pollution plummeted in China due to coronavirus. It’s starting to go up again

“We’ll look at other options like trucking the material away or chipping it, but those are all exponentially higher cost, which probably means we will end up having to do less,” said Brolund.

Brolund is suggesting residents use this time of home isolation to wildfire-proof their properties to make up for the controlled burns fire departments can’t complete.

Should more be done to curb air pollution during the pandemic?

Mehta thinks the current fire bans are a good first step, but believes officials should go even further to control smoke by banning the use of fire places and wood stoves.

Mehta acknowledges such a move could be politically unpopular but said it would help protect the older populations living in the rural communities.

READ MORE: Clearing the air: Carbon emissions down amid coronavirus outbreak

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However, even without further fire controls, Mehta points out efforts to control the spread of the virus are also naturally curbing other types of air pollution such as vehicle emissions, as people stay at home.

“There are some good things happening but we need to go a few steps further,” he said.

However, whether or not further burning restrictions are put into place, what governments can’t simply cancel during the pandemic is the wildfire season itself.

Mehta suggests residents take proactive steps, including reducing or quitting smoking and purchasing air purifiers with HEPA filtration systems and UV sterilizers built into them.