British Columbia

Kamloops experiencing worst air quality in its recorded history

The City of Kamloops, B.C. is experiencing record low air quality.

The Air Quality Health Index measures risk from 1 to 10. Kamloops is at 49

Downtown Kamloops is surrounded by air pollution on August 3, 2017. (Doug Herbert/CBC)

The City of Kamloops, B.C., is experiencing record low air quality, according to Environment Canada.

As of 4 p.m. PT on Thursday, the city's Air Quality Health Index was 49 — with anything over 10 considered a very high risk. 

In downtown Kamloops, the concentration of fine particulate matter in the air from 2 to 3 p.m. averaged 684.5 micrograms per cubic metre, whereas most areas in Metro Vancouver have hovered between 50 and 60 in recent days. 

For comparison sake, China considers a daily average above 300 to be hazardous.

Kamloops airport cancellations

The air pollution is being caused by the wildfires that have been raging to the west and north of Kamloops for several weeks, particularly the Elephant Hill wildfire, now measured at over 80,000 hectares.

The city is providing masks to all municipal employees who work outside, and the Kamloops Airport has warned that there will be cancellation of flights into the evening.

People asked to stay indoors. 

At air quality levels above 10, people are asked to reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors, especially if they are children, senior citizens or suffer from coughing or throat irritation.

But Interior Health is recommending all people stay indoors regardless. 

"We are not only advising people who have chronic medical conditions to stay indoors but also healthy people. It's not healthy to be breathing this air," said Medical Health Officer Dr. Silvina Mema.

It was a call echoed by city councillor Deiter Dudy.

"I'm a farmer by trade. I actually sent my people home. I wouldn't make them work in this condition," he said.

"I am just at the hospital right now, and I noticed that there's a lot more traffic coming up this way. I would think that emergency is overloaded with people with respiratory problems."

Uncharted territory 

CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe says it's uncharted territory for a city like Kamloops to have their Air Quality Health Index above 10 for so long.

"We just don't have any studies looking at what a factor over 10 means in terms of health impacts," she said, adding that there's been no studies on the specific effects from forests fires, as opposed to straight up pollution. 

"We don't know how much worse a 49 is than a 10. All we can say is anything over seven is bad."

And while the index may not stay as high as 49 going forward, the general prognosis is unlikely to improve in the next 24 hours.

"A shift in winds this weekend might help improve the air quality situation across the whole province, but there's so much smoke, it'll be hard to say whether it's enough to flush things out in Kamloops." 

With files from Doug Herbert and Tamara Rahmani