Wildfires, wood smoke and dust: forum looks at air quality in northern B.C.

Air quality is a big concern among people in northern B.C. For two days, academics and environmentalists came together to talk about the state of the air and how to improve it.

'We have this looming threat of wildfire,' says expert

Smoky conditions at Summit Lake, north of Prince George, B.C., during wildfire in August 2017. (Juleen Greer)

Although B.C.'s air quality is good compared to other places around the world, it's an ongoing concern for many areas in the north, especially due to wildfires, says an expert.

In addition to the emissions released by wildfires, residential wood burning and road dust contribute to poor air quality in northern B.C. according to Sarah Henderson, senior environmental health scientist with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

"In a lot of ways we're doing a great job at bringing emissions under control… then we have this looming threat of wildfire which can easily overcome all those gains we make in other areas in a bad year like last year," Henderson told Daybreak North's Carolina de Ryk.

Unfortunately 2017 was an indicator of things to come, she said, especially in the northern parts of the province heavily forested by coniferous trees.

Henderson said there's little to be done to control the heavy smoke released by wildfires, so the only way to approach the problem is to "learn how to live with it and… keep people as safe as possible when we're having those exposures."

Residential wood burning

To address the widespread concern about air quality after last year's fires, academics and environmentalists came together to talk about the state of the air and how to improve it this week.

Henderson was the keynote speaker at the North Central B.C. Clean Air Forum in Prince George, where she discussed finding ways to continue improving air quality.

Her talk paid special attention to residential wood burning, which is a large contributor to air pollution because of the number of residents who use stoves to heat their homes.

An all out ban of residential burning is unlikely, she said, which means people need to take responsibility to change their practices.

"Wood burning in particular is hard to solve because it comes down to personal behaviour. Everybody has a role to play in this and changing individual behaviour is a challenging thing to do," she said.

Another issue is road dust, which many northerners are familiar with on dry spring days, Henderson said.

She's impressed with the industrial sector's reduced emissions in Prince George over the past decade, and said in the future, new projects will need to stick to the same controls to maintain air quality.

"If we stay the course that we're on, I'm very optimistic that air quality will continue to improve," she said.

With files from Daybreak North