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Wildfires are dangerous, and so is wildfire smoke

Aug 18, 2014 |

By: Sarah Henderson, Michael Brauer and Roland Stull

Forest fire smoke © BLMOregon

Forest fire smoke © BLMOregon

Wildfires are a normal part of summer in British Columbia, but some years are worse than others. The summer of 2003 was the most extreme season on record, with 265,000 hectares burned, more than 45,000 people evacuated, an unprecedented 334 homes destroyed, and one volunteer firefighter lost. The fires during the summer of 2010 surpassed 2003, with an unprecedented 337,000 hectares burned, many of which had been decimated by the extensive mountain pine beetle infestation. The summer of the 2014 is shaping up to become the worst fire season on record, with 250,000 hectares already burned by early August. This pales when compared with the Northwest Territories, where more than three million hectares have already burned. Situations are similar for our American neighbors in Washington and Oregon.

Wildfires are terrifying when they pose a direct threat to the health of human populations, and British Columbians are fortunate that excellent emergency management has ensured that such incidents are rare. However, wildfires also pose an indirect and underappreciated threat to the health of the entire province via their smoke, which causes some of the worst air quality that most British Columbians will ever experience.

Sarah Henderson

Dr. Sarah Henderson

Multiple studies in Canada and elsewhere have shown that that short, smoky episodes can have a wide range of health effects, from reduced birth weight for babies exposed in the womb through to small increases in premature death. People with heart and lung diseases are most sensitive to wildfire smoke, but absolutely everyone is affected by poor air quality on smoky days.

Those with heart and lung diseases, who live near affected areas, should ensure that they have ample rescue medication available, and that they have a plan for seeking care if rescue medications are inadequate to control exacerbations. Everyone who is bothered by the smoke should think about ways to access cleaner air, including the use of a high efficiency particular air (HEPA) filter in at least one area of the home. The BC Centre for Disease Control recently published a review of the evidence for clean air shelters as one of the most effective methods for reducing smoke exposure.


Dr. Roland Stull

Furthermore, smoke from large wildfires can be transported around the globe, meaning that fires in British Columbia can contribute to global pollution and that British Columbians are exposed to smoke from fires elsewhere. We know that chronic exposure to similar pollution from fossil fuels leads to the development of chronic diseases, so more smoky days threaten to offset the public health benefits of stricter controls on other sources.

It is impossible to regulate smoke from wildfires, so our best collective and individual defense strategy is to be prepared. University of British Columbia researchers are collaborating provincially, nationally, and internationally to achieve this goal. Since the summer of 2010 the BC Ministry of Environment has partnered with Dr. Roland Stull’s group (Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences) on the BlueSky smoke forecasting model, which predicts where smoke from current fires will travel over the upcoming days.


Dr. Michael Brauer

After the 2010 season Dr. Michael Brauer’s group (School of Population and Public Health) conducted an evaluation of BlueSky as a tool for public health protection, and found that forecasts could be used to predict population health impacts during extreme fire periods. Based on those results Dr. Sarah Henderson’s group (BC Centre for Disease Control) has incorporated BlueSky data into the BC Asthma Monitoring System, which is used to detect significant increases in daily doctor visits and medications dispensed for asthma across the province. This work puts UBC research at the cutting edge of forecasting the air quality and health impacts of wildfire smoke.

Wildfires affect everyone in British Columbia, even those who are far removed from the burning. As the global climate changes we may have more fires and larger fires, so we need to be aware of and prepared for the direct threat to a small percentage of the population and the indirect threat to the entire population.
This work has been supported by multiyear funding from Health Canada the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP-2012-CP-1182), which is managed by Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science, in partnership with Public Safety Canada.