British Columbia

No smoke: Haida Gwaii only place in B.C. unaffected by wildfire haze since 2017

The area around Quesnel in B.C.'s Cariboo region had 112 smoky skies bulletins issued by the province since 2017.

Area around Quesnel had the most smoky skies bulletins issued by province

An idyllic view of North Beach on Haida Gwaii. The archipelago off B.C.'s North Coast was the only place in the province unaffected by wildfire smoke during the last two fire seasons. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

The only place in B.C. unaffected by wildfire smoke since 2017 according to provincial data is Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of 150 islands off the North Coast of B.C. known for its beautiful landscapes, wildlife, heritage and rain.

That only one small region in B.C. has been spared from wildfire smoke, which can create hazy, irritating and, at times, unhealthy conditions for residents, shows how pervasive the problem is.

Barry Pages, the mayor of Masset, says residents consider themselves lucky but know that could change.

"We have been very fortunate so far that we haven't had wildfires," he said. "But ... we've noticed that it is getting drier in the spring and the summer."

In 2017, the province's Ministry of Environment began issuing smoky skies bulletins, which are specific to wildfire smoke. They are public advisories that help people living in different regions understand if their airspace is impacted by wildfire smoke.

Air quality advisories are used for individual communities when an air pollutant such as smoke — but also emissions or dust — exceed air quality standards.

Both notifications are meant to help residents make informed choices about reducing their exposure to air pollutants.

During the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons some smoky skies bulletins lasted up to 40 days.

An aerial view of the 2017 Pantage Lake fire northwest of Quesnel in B.C.'s central Interior which grew to more than 158 hectares. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

B.C.'s Cariboo region around Quesnel has had 112 smoky skies bulletins since 2017, the most in the province, followed by the South Okanagan around Penticton which has had 106. Prince George in the centre of the province has had 102.

The province doesn't issue smoky skies bulletins for Metro Vancouver because it monitors its own air quality, which includes the Lower Fraser Valley. Since 2017, Metro Vancouver has issued eight air quality advisories related to wildfire smoke which cumulatively lasted for 41 days.

'Compromised'

Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson says all the wildfire smoke is presenting a big change for his community.

"It's causing us to do a lot of head scratching and a lot of thinking about how we can get our community through these kinds of events if it's our so-called 'new normal,' " he said.

Part of the solution will be coming up with funds to upgrade air systems at public indoor places, such as the town's arena, to be able to filter out wildfire smoke so that residents can take refuge in the summer. The city also wants to equip residents with home kits that include masks.

Simpson says relentless days of smoke make people worry about their health.

 "You can handle one day of it but if you are getting successive days, there's times where we've gotten 10 days or so in a row and you really start to feel as though you're being compromised," he said.

'Roll with it'

Another big challenge for Simpson and his community is how to keep tourists coming to the area's attractions, including family festivals such as its Billy Barker Days.

Simpson says tourism operators are already suggesting visitors book in May and June or September or October to avoid the possibility of a cancellations in July or August.

"We just kind of have to roll with it and see what comes," he said about the unpredictability of wildfires.

Meanwhile Pages says Haida Gwaii isn't marketing itself as a smoke-free destination. He says tourism continues to grow due to good surfing conditions and the region's natural beauty.

"If [people] like the outdoors, they'll love Haida Gwaii," he said adding that communities are making plans on how to handle wildfires if they materialize.

 

About the Author

Chad Pawson is a CBC News reporter in Vancouver. You can contact him at chad.pawson@cbc.ca.

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