The Impact of Wildfire Smoke on Your Health
Wildfires are a frequent occurrence in summer throughout Canada, but some years can be far more devastating than others. There are some 8,000 wildfires that affect heavily forested areas in the country per year; both drought and dry conditions only increase the risk for potential fire activity, which is more frequent than ever in the summer months.
Alberta has experienced a string of destructive wildfires in recent years. In 2016, there was the Fort McMurray fire which engulfed roughly 590,000 hectares of land before it was deemed to be controlled. 2019 suffered a rough start to summer in Alberta when the Chuckegg Creek Fire started near a town called High Level, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate from their homes.
Wildfire smoke poses a huge and sometimes underestimated threat to the health of everyone in the province due to the large amount of land it can quickly encompass. Both Alberta and British Columbia have suffered some of the worst air quality conditions in recent years than ever thanks to wildfires.
How Wildfire Affects Your Health
While certain individuals are more susceptible to the effects of wildfire smoke than others, the threat is no less universal. Those who suffer from chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, lung or heart diseases are particularly sensitive, as well as people over sixty-five, smokers, infants or young children and pregnant women. Anyone who is at risk from wildfire smoke should seek medical care if they are experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath beyond what is normal;
- A recurrent cough;
- Watery or dry eyes;
- Headaches, either dull or throbbing;
- Asthma attacks of lung irritation;
- Weakness, fatigue or inexplicable exhaustion; or
- Pains or feelings of tightness in the chest.
Those with heart or lung conditions should ensure they have access to the appropriate, necessary care if there is any exposure to smoke. Wildfire smoke is particularly dangerous because it includes both carbon monoxide gasses and particles of building material and burning vegetation, and can cause issues or exacerbate pre-existing conditions when it enters the respiratory system.
Limiting Smoke Exposure
The best way to avoid being affected by wildfire smoke is to limit your exposure to it altogether. Here are a few ways to do so:
- Stay indoors as much as you can and close doors and windows, especially on days with heavy smoke conditions;
- Drink plenty of water;
- Refrain from smoking, wood-burning stoves, candles and other indoor air pollution sources;
- Do not vacuum indoors during smoke conditions as this can stir up dust;
- Use effective air-cleaning filters; and
- If you or a loved one suffers from a health condition that could be worsened by the smoke, consider leaving the area until the threat subsides.
If you need to go anywhere, reduce your exposure to the smoke by sealing your windows in your car and using your air conditioning to circulate the air.
Wildfire Smoke FAQ
What is particulate matter?
Particulate matter is debris that was burnt by the wildfire which accumulates in smoke. It is what makes wildfire smoke so dangerous. The largest particles, greater than 10 micrometers, tend to aggravate the eyes, nose and throat. Particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers may possibly be inhaled into the lungs and induce symptoms like coughing – or even worsen pre-existing conditions.
What do I do if I’m having a medical emergency due to smoke exposure?
Call 911 immediately, or go to an emergency room if you can. Medical emergencies from smoke can include severe difficulties breathing or intense chest pain.
How do I know what the air quality is in my community?
Check the Air Quality Health Index for Alberta.
Protecting Your Home from Wildfire Damage
Wildfires expand by using vegetation and wilderness as their fuel source. When they cross into urban communities, manufactured structures become their source of fuel. Protecting your home is essentially about making it so that your home cannot be used as a fire fuel source. Here’s how:
- Ensure your lawn is kept well-trimmed and you regularly clear it of dead or unhealthy plant debris. Brown tips on grass are a good indicator that a trim is necessary. Dispose of all plant matter as soon as you can and do not let it accumulate.
- Keep trees maintained by dispatching dead or broken branches. If need be, remove dying or dead trees completely.
- Make the area around your home fire-free by using non-flammable materials like stones, gravel, rocks and synthetic patio planks. If possible, consider reconstructing your house’s outdoor features with fire-resistant resources.
- Work with your neighbours to create a “fire-adapted community”, since your home can only ever be as fire-proof as the houses around it.
For additional information regarding current provincial advisories for wildfires and other public health concerns, check Alberta Health Services. They will be able to provide further assistance when it comes to protecting yourself and your loved ones from the effects of wildfire smoke.