Valley residents left guessing at health impacts of smoke from worst-ever wildfire season

Temporary nature of summer smoke mitigated some of the potential health risks, experts say

The unprecedented heavy smoke that clouded the skies of the Upper Columbia Valley, and indeed of much of B.C., for most of the summer does carry potential health risks, but academics say the temporary nature of the smoke mitigates those risks to a certain degree.

Smoke from wildfires across the province, including several in or near the Valley, started filling the skies in early to mid-July and, with the exception of a few stretches of clear days now and then, the smoke stuck around more than a week into September. During many days in the summer, the mountains surrounding Invermere and other Valley communities were not even remotely visible, and on several occasions, standing in Invermere, it was even difficult to discern houses and trees on the east side of the lake in anything more than murky outline. On Thursday, September 7th in the late afternoon it was impossible to see the tip of Fort Point when standing in the middle of Kinsmen Beach, a distance of much less than one kilometre.

The Upper Columbia Valley was hardly the only place smoked out and hazed under this summer, with much of the rest of the province, including Vancouver and other coastal cities, as well as a large chunk of neighbouring Alberta dealing with the same conditions. In one of the worst air quality measurements ever made, anywhere, Thursday, August 3rd left residents of Kamloops sucking for fresh air particularly hard when the city’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) broke the charts with a lung-searing reading of 49 at about 4 p.m. local time there.

The AQHI scale, although technically open-ended, appears as a one to 10 index, with ratings one through three colour-coded blue and labelled low health risk; four through six colour-coded yellow and orange and labelled moderate health risk; seven through 10 colour-coded deepening shades of red and labelled high health risk; and anything over 10 considered extremely high risk. The 49 rating was unprecedented and drew parallels with heavily polluted cities in China, such as Beijing.

CBC reported that, using another metric of air quality, the fine particulate matter in Kamloops on August 3rd was 684.5 micrograms per cubic metre, and that China considers anything over 300 to be hazardous. Indeed Huffington Post’s report on the matter pointed out that fine particulate matter in Kamloops was more than double the levels that triggered the first ever “red-alert” for high levels of air pollution in Beijing in 2015, which shut down schools and halted all outdoor construction in the city.

Local Kamloops meteorologists were at a loss to explain exactly what a 49 rating meant, with one telling CBC that “we just don’t have any studies looking at what a factor over 10 means in terms of health impacts,” later adding “we don’t know how much worse a 49 is than a 10. All we can say is anything over seven is bad.” The city handed out masks to municipal employees working outdoors, and the Kamloops airport cancelled all flights.

Columbia Valley residents curious to know the quality of their air in comparison with Kamloops were also at a loss, as the only AQHI monitoring station publishing data in the entire Kootenay region, and indeed the only one in B.C. east of Kelowna, is in Castlegar, which is more than a four hour drive from Invermere.

Kelowna-based Environment Canada meteorologist Doug Lundquist told the Pioneer that although Castlegar may be 400 kilometres away by road, it is definitely closer as the crow flies, but he still conceded that “it’s not that useful” for determining air quality in Invermere. He deferred comment on how locations for an AQHI station gets chosen to the federal Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

Ministry spokesperson Isabel Lavictoire told the Pioneer there is in fact an air quality monitoring site much closer to Invermere, in the Cranbrook ambulance station, but that it doesn’t publish its data online, although she added that may change soon.

“It is a filter-based instrument that measures PM2.5 particulate, meaning that the samples need to be analyzed at a laboratory, and therefore real-time information is not available for this site,” said Ms. Lavictoire. “A new long-term air monitoring shelter is due to be moved into Cranbrook this fall. Staff are hoping to finalize a partnership with the local school board soon, so that monitoring can commence. This new station will house ozone, oxides of nitrogen and particulate monitors, as well as meteorology parameters, and as such, will be used to calculate the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), which will be shown on the www.bcairquality.ca website.”

Mr. Lunquist said the smokey skies in B.C. were due in part to there being wildfires everywhere right across the province, and to a strong ridge of high pressure conditions that trapped the smoke for a long time.

Indeed by August 16th the B.C. Wildfire Service had confirmed that the wildfires at that point had already officially qualified 2017 as the worst wildfire season on record, surpassing the wildfires of 1958 in terms of total hectares burned. The service pointed out at the time that the fire season was still in full swing, and that firefighters expected to be busy for a long time to come. Not quite a week later, the service reported that 19 previously separate wildfires had combined in central B.C., to create the most massive wildfire ever seen in the province. The Plateau fire, as it was dubbed, stretched unbroken for nearly 130 kilometres end to end, and encompassed more than 460,000 hectares.

University of Calgary professor Ke Du, however, told the Pioneer, on a note of slight reassurance, that one difference between the air quality resulting from the B.C. wildfires and that of Beijing or other mega cities is that the source of wildfire smoke is directly burning biomass, while the smog in mega cities often contains particles from secondary sources. Mr. Du also pointed out that wildfire smoke tends to be far less frequent and much more temporary than the haze blanketing major cities in China.

“My opinion is that we do not need to worry so much compared with mega cities,” he said.

Mr. Du did add, however, that “visibility is highly correlated with particle concentration and that high concentration (of particles) is related to health,” meaning that the less Invermere residents could see of their usual surrounding natural landmarks on a given day during the summer, the worse that day was from a health perspective.

A Vancouver respiratory doctor, during a particularly smoky day there, on August 4th, sounded a similar note to Mr. Du, saying that the temporary nature of the smoke meant long-term health concerns weren’t really an issue, but then added that wildfires, and the resulting smoke, seems to be becoming more frequent than in past decades and that should be cause for B.C. residents to be vigilant.

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