Does BC need a plan to handle smoke season?
Air quality advisories are becoming increasingly common during wildfire season and the impacts of smoke are costly to human health and to BC's bottom line.
Climate change is creating a depressingly common new season: smoke season.
And governments need to better plan to manage the smoke, says Bob Gray, a Chilliwack-based wildfire ecologist and fire scientist.
Climate change has heavily influenced the behaviour of wildfires. In recent years they have become more frequent and more severe—and the effect of the smoke they generate will continue to worsen as the planet continues to warm.
Air quality advisories are becoming common practice during wildfire season. The alerts are often not only triggered by wildfire smoke in British Columbia, but also in the US. Just last month, smoke from local and US wildfires blanketed the Fraser Valley prompting a week-long air quality advisory.
That advisory was one of four that was issued this year for the Fraser Valley, the same number as the year before.
What was once considered unprecedented is becoming ordinary.
In fact, most of the last five years have been unprecedented.
The record-breaking wildfire season in the western United States in 2020 sent heavy smoke to BC. Local governments issued nine smoke-related air quality advisories in just the month of September that year. The BC Lung Association found a majority of the province’s air quality reporting stations exceeded provincial targets.
During the 2017 wildfire season, the province was in a state of emergency for 10 weeks. And the Lower Mainland was under an air quality advisory for 19 days.
THE TROUBLE WITH SMOKE
Wildfire smoke has two troubling aspects. The carbon side—carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and methane—is all potent greenhouse gases. The second is the particulate matter, which is the small soot and other particulars that are detrimental to human health.
Wildfire smoke is particularly concerning for vulnerable people, like pregnant women, seniors, and kids. It contributes to emphysema, bronchitis, and can have cardiopulmonary implications, said Gray. Science also links wood smoke to dementia and preterm births, he added.
The local fire scientist has been sounding the alarm for more than 20 years about the need to take action to reduce carbon emissions and the impacts of climate change. And he isn’t standing idly by himself. Gray is currently working on a project with Pacific Institute for Climate Studies to reduce the average annual area burned at high severity.
“That’s those big ugly 20,000 hectare fires that are stand-replacing fires in ecosystems that historically weren’t stand-replacing, and that applies to parts of the coast here too.”
Massive fires means a vast amount of smoke.
The health problems associated with wildfire smoke also pose a financial burden.
With a universal health care system that already eats up a significant amount of the annual budget, Gray believes government should be more incentivized to reduce wood smoke, particularly for a densely populated region that is at the mercy of its geography.
“In the summertime, we have weather systems that cause inversions. And one of the problems of climate change is that we get these stalled high pressure systems,” Gray said.
Essentially, there is no air movement. So during the wildfire season the smoke is stagnant in a densely populated region. (That’s really bad.)
And that’s exactly what happened in early September. Gray estimated the air quality was five to six times greater than the threshold of what is considered healthy, clean air.
“We really don’t want to be producing big, ugly, nasty high emission wildfires here on the coast where we have so much fuel stored in the forest,” he said.
The heavy smoke in September forced school districts in the eastern Fraser Valley to issue their own bulletins. Districts ensured parents that schools were taking the appropriate steps to reduce exposure to kids and staff by limiting time outdoors.
But the filtering technology used by local schools may not be up for the task of protecting against the region’s new smoke seasons.
Schools in the Chilliwack, Fraser-Cascade, and Abbotsford districts are equipped with MERV 13 air filters. The filters are rated between one and 20, based on their ability to capture particles, according to the BCCDC. MERV 13 to 16 filters are commonly used in hospitals and for smoke removal and bacteria. But the BCCDC says MERV 13 or lower efficiency filters are “unlikely” to provide good protection from wildfire smoke.
Gray says governments need a better plan for the future.
“We’re already talking about the fact that we’re going to get more heat domes in the future. So whether it’s a fire or whether it’s just heat, those are also considerations for infrastructure.
“While we’re doing that, we might as well start thinking about places where people can cool off and basically breathe clean air. Unfortunately, the smoke is going to be in our future. And it’s going to be significant.”
The Fraser Valley Regional District is taking some action. Last year, the regional district released its Air Quality Management Plan. (The idea isn’t new. The regional district published its first plan in 1998.) The plan is to help guide the FVRD to reduce emissions and improve the region’s air quality for the next 10 years. (It’s also worth noting that wildfire smoke isn’t the sole focus of the plan. The quality of air can be impacted by transportation, commercial operations, or wood burning, to name a few.)
Poor air quality kills thousands of Canadians each year. Health care related to air pollution costs Canada billions of dollars.
But it’s not only costly to the health care system, it also weighs on industry like tourism and real estate. It even impacts a persons ability to enjoy the outdoors.
“For example, a single poor visibility event in the Fraser Valley during the peak tourist season could result in losses as high as C$1.3 million in regional tourism revenue,” the FVRD cites in its report.
Gray sympathizes with the public’s exhaustion with climate change and the anxiety about the future of the planet, but says it’s far too important to neglect.
Previous modelling severely underestimated BC’s recent fire seasons. In 2015, Gray says, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasted high severity fire seasons by 2035 in the US and in British Columbia. But in California, devastating fire burned homes in 2020 and in BC the following year. Last year’s fires burned Lytton to the ground, destroyed homes in Monte Lake and the North Okanagan, and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.
“They were forecasting something that we didn’t think was going to happen for 20 years. And it happened in less than 10 years,” Gray said. “And this sounds like Chicken Little—but we really do have to do things in a very big way in the next decade. Otherwise, we may not have any success at all.”
Gray’s advice is to speak up.
“The most important thing to do is get it on your MP and your MLA’s radar. And don’t let them fob it off,” he said.
“The focus right now is on housing and certainly health care is huge, we’re still in a pandemic, but they’re going to have to juggle more than one or two things at a time. And this one’s critical. I mean, this is the future of our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and we could be saddling them with a horrible, horrible situation.
“[Politicians] tend to go to wherever the sort of the flavour of the day is as far as issues. But this one they’re going to have to get on top of and just be persistent.”
Gray says governments have to undertake “transformational change” and not “pick away at the margins” or “tweak legislation.”
“Your political party doesn’t need to tackle this because it’s going to be a problem way beyond when you lose majority and someone else is in power,” he observed.
“The best thing [they] can do now, for example, for the NDP, is strike a committee with the Greens and the BC Liberals and whoever else, and can come up with a 20-, 30-, 40-year plan, because it’s going to take decades to solve this.”