British Columbia

B.C. fires: smoky skies and how to avoid them

With a blanket of smoke threatening the health of infants and seniors around B.C.'s south coast, it's worth considering going to the mall for a breath of fresh air.

Seniors, infants trying to escape the dangers of smoke may be better off in a library or mall

With a blanket of smoke threatening the health of infants and seniors around B.C.'s south coast, it's worth considering going to the mall for a breath of fresh air. (Cher Lee Shaw/Twitter)

Imagine starting a campfire under a giant, domed tent.

Now try to breathe.

That's essentially the situation that has seen a mixture of wildfires and meteorological factors combine to blanket B.C.'s South Coast with a screen of unshakeable smoke.

As a result, residents from the east coast of Vancouver Island to the Fraser Valley and Sea to Sky corridor are living under air quality advisories.

Even healthy people can taste the smoke, but it can be deadly for infants and seniors.

Where does the smoke come from?

The main culprits are two blazes west of Pemberton. The Boulder Creek and Elaho wildfires comprise a total of 25,000 combined hectares and both were caused by lightning.

Chief B.C. fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek says they grew substantially on the weekend, accounting for the bulk of smoke on the south coast. That's where the weather takes over. 

Masks are common in polluted cities in China, but if they aren't properly fitted, they may make it harder to breathe. (Kyodo News/AP)

According to Environment Canada meteorologist Lisa Coldwells, a broad dome of high pressure is sitting on top of the province, providing only slight winds even at high altitudes.

"The smoke doesn't have a chance to dissipate. It just comes up off the fire and it's just sort of gently moving towards Vancouver, the southern tip of Vancouver Island and the most populated areas," she says.

But making the situation even worse is a temperature inversion: it's actually warmer higher up right now, which means the smoke can't rise.

Coldwells compares it to putting an upside-down bowl on top of a steaming cup of tea.

What does smoke do to the lungs?

UBC public health associate professor Chris Carlsten says smoke is tough on the very old and the very young: infants are still developing immune and breathing systems and those same systems are often compromised in seniors.

Fine particulate matter gets into the lungs and the bloodstream resulting in oxidative stress.

"A chain of events can ensue that disregulates the normal balance in the lungs and leads to inflammation which can lead to more difficult breathing and wheezing," says Carlsten.

So what can you do?

Public health officials are advising people who have chronic underlying medical health problems to stay inside as much as possible. But that comes with a few caveats. 

"An indoor environment is only going to be helpful if it's a filtered air environment," says Carlsten.

Malls, libraries and community centres are highly recommended. Check with the building ahead of time to make sure they have an industrial air filter.

The City of Vancouver has compiled a list of cooling centres for people to visit.

If you plan to stay at home, close the windows and run an air conditioner to circulate clean air. The city also recommends running an air cleaner and HEPA filters can reduce the amount of particulate matter in your house.

Carlsten says masks can be hit or miss.

"In theory, masks are great," he says.

"In practice, they're not, because masks have to be of a proper kind and they have to be properly fitted."

If a mask isn't properly fitted, Carlsten says it can actually have an adverse effect on breathing.

Sometimes the best way of beating the heat also happen to be the most comforting. (Robyn Lee/Flickr)

Travel by car is not recommended, because the smoke combines with traffic pollution to make breathing even harder. And the extent of the advisory means it's very hard to get away from the smoke.

Finally, you should stay hydrated and do anything you can to keep cool. And if that means having an extra ice cream or popsicle, so be it.