Wildfire preparedness

By Dr. Rakel Kling Northwest Medical Health Officer Northern Health
March 22, 2019 - 9:49am

Forest fire season will be starting soon. It’s important to be prepared ahead of time to stay healthy when our air quality is affected by wildfires – in other words, before the smoke hits.

What is wildfire smoke?

Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of different pollutants that can change rapidly; it depends on what is being burned, where the actual fire is burning, and current weather conditions. This includes very small particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs, causing irritation and an immune response.

Why should I prepare for wildfire season?

Wildfire smoke can be harmful to your health. Smoky air makes it harder for your lungs to get oxygen into your blood, and it can cause an immune response which may lead to inflammation affecting other parts of your body.

Common symptoms include cough, eye irritation, runny nose, sore throat and headaches. But some people have more severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain and heart palpitations. Being prepared can help reduce some of these symptoms.

Wildfires and smoke are lasting for longer periods of time each year and becoming more extreme and intense in some areas. Preparing for this can help you cope with the smoke for longer periods of time.

Who is most at risk for these severe symptoms?

Different people respond differently to wildfire smoke, so it’s important to listen to your own body. But there are some people are more likely to develop severe symptoms; those with chronic respiratory conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), people with heart disease or diabetes, as well as infants, young children and older adults.

Health preparations for wildfire season

If you or any members of your family have a chronic disease, work with your doctor to make sure your condition is most optimally managed before the start of the wildfire season, as well as making a plan for how to manage when the smoky periods come.

If you use a rescue medication (like an inhaler), please ensure you have an adequate supply at home and plan to carry these medications with you at all times during wildfire season. Have a clear plan to follow, created with your physician, if this medication isn’t able to bring your condition under control during smoky times.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by eating healthy and exercising regularly can also prevent health effects from both long- and short-term exposure to air pollution.

Extreme heat and poor air conditions can also challenge our mental health. Take time to foster positive mental health, by getting good rest and connecting with friends and family. Plan ahead for activities that can be done indoors during wildfire seasons, such as social time with family and friends, or indoor exercise routines.

Know how to get clean air:

Portable air cleaners are mobile units that plug into the wall and can be moved between rooms. They draw air in and remove some of the smoke particles and release cleaner air.

Portable air cleaners can help anyone reduce their exposure to smoky air and reduce any symptoms from breathing in smoke. Air cleaners are particularly important for those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, pregnant women, infants and young children, and the elderly.

Consider purchasing a portable air cleaner that uses HEPA filtration to remove smoke from the indoor air. They must be maintained to continue working properly, so a unit that clearly indicates when the HEPA filter needs to be replaced is important. And, different units treat different volumes of air, so do your research to get something suitable for your space. Quality units should be certified by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

It’s also important to know where to find clean air in your community. Libraries, community centers and shopping malls often have cooler, filtered air that can provide a respite from the smoke.

Finally, familiarize yourself with where you can find information about current air quality conditions – they can change quickly (even within a couple hours)!

Resources:

  • Air Quality Advisories and Smoky Skies Bulletins - Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy
  • BC Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) – not available in all NH communities
  • BC Particulate Matter (PM2.5) Data Map – also not available in all communities
  • Canada’s Wildfire Smoke Prediction System (FireWork)

Plan ahead for possible evacuation:

No preparedness plan for wildfire season would be complete without considering the potential for evacuation due to risk from a wildfire itself, or risk to transportation routes. The presence of smoke is not typically a reason to evacuate

Have your emergency kit and important documents ready to go, which should include things like insurance and personal papers, such as birth certificates. Make sure to have an adequate supply of any medications you regularly require, and it’s always a good idea to have a few days’ worth of clothes packed up and ready as well.

Know ahead of time where to look for information related to wildfires in your community such as Emergency Info BC Twitter page or your local government website For more information on how to prepare to evacuate, check out the Emergency Management BC website

 

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