The wildfires in Quebec whose smoke cast an eerie orange glow over NYC more than a month ago are still burning. The headlines have faded away but the story is far from over. In fact, the smoke from these raging fires has now blown over 3,000 km across the Atlantic Ocean and darkened the skies in Western Europe.
It’s only July and Canada is already in the grips of the worst wildfire season in its recorded history. At the time of writing there are currently 877 fires burning across Canada, 532 of which are listed as “out of control”.
One of the primary drivers of this drastic increase in wildfires is climate change. Record heat and drought are draining moisture from trees and undergrowth, priming them to ignite. Rising temperatures are predicted to increase the frequency and severity of storms.
The lightning that these storms produce is the cause of more than half of wildfires, and the number one cause in remote areas. Finally, hotter temperatures are predicted to increase the number of dry and windy days. These conditions help fires spread rapidly and expansively.
Wildfire season is predicted to get more intense as we enter the hottest days of summer. And with the smoke continuing to spread, there’s a good chance your health depends on your access to clean air. In this article we’ll help you understand the dangers that wildfires pose to you and your community, and share our top recommendations to help you stay safe.
WILDFIRE SMOKE AND YOUR HEALTH
Wildfires release toxic chemicals into the air that can cause serious damage to our heart and lungs. This is true for even the healthiest among us.
Firefighters are among the strongest folks you can imagine. Yet a 2017 study of wildland firefighters had alarming results. The data indicated that these firefighters faced a significant increase in deaths from lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, and cardiovascular disease – compared to people with no smoke exposure.
One of the biggest concerns with wildfire smoke is something called particulate matter. It is made up of super small particles that are easily absorbed deep into lungs – where we can’t cough them out. These particles can even enter our bloodstream. There is no known safe limit of exposure to particulate matter. This means the dangers to our health are immediate.
Short term exposure to these tiny chemical pollutants can cause burning eyes, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Long term exposure can lead to permanently decreased lung capacity, and an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and lung cancer. So what steps can we take to help us protect ourselves and our communities?
THE SINGLE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE FOR MOST PEOPLE
- Sign up for notifications: Many countries have a system to measure air quality. They also provide public updates on our health risks when it comes to the air we breathe. In Canada this is called the AQHI (Air Quality Health Index), while in the U.S. it’s called the AQI (Air Quality Index). With both options, you can monitor the current air quality in your region and make informed decisions to reduce your exposure to air pollution.
There are also apps (Canada / U.S.), that allow you to sign up for notifications about the air quality in your area. You have the option to customize your alerts based on your personal sensitivity to air pollution. With this real-time information you can plan your activities around times of higher risk.
THE NEXT FIVE BEST ACTIONS TO TAKE
- Invest in a good quality N95: If you do have to be outdoors during times of bad air quality, it’s important to protect yourself. A well-fitted N95 mask will help filter out some of the toxic chemicals and limit your exposure.
- Filter your indoor air: If levels are high, it’s important to stay inside with the doors and windows closed. In this case, a high quality air purifier is your best bet to stay safe. Many air purifiers come with built in monitoring. This allows them to test for dangerous air pollutants. Look for an air purifier with an EnergyStar™ certification, as some use more energy than a new refrigerator. If you can’t buy one, building an air purifier at home is another good option.
If you live in a home with a central heating or central ducted heat pump system, both of these can be adapted to filter your indoor air. With central air, you can run your furnace/system on fan mode to benefit from recirculated air filtration. Make sure your furnace filters are regularly maintained and have a high enough rating for your needs.
- Find a clean air centre: If you’re far from home or don’t have any air filtration at your house, get to an indoor space with filtered air. You can find them in shopping malls, community centres, and libraries. You can contact your local health authorities or emergency management organizations for a list of clean air centres. Make a list and have it on hand ahead of time.
- Take care of your physical and mental health: Smoke events can cause feelings of heightened stress, anxiety, and isolation. Key strategies include drinking enough water, eating regularly, staying connected to friends and family, and finding ways to move your body indoors.
Becoming a member of My Climate Plan, can also help you tackle your anxiety head on by being part of a group of people making a collective impact in the fight against climate change.
- Clear the air: Once the air quality has returned to safe levels, open up the windows of your home to allow any remaining particulate matter to clear out. If you’re using an air purifier, check your filters to see if they need to be cleaned or replaced before you need to use them next.
These recommendations can help us protect ourselves and our families from the dangers of wildfire smoke. But this is only half of the story.
We also need to be proactive in helping to limit the duration and frequency of future wildfires by tackling them at their source. From drastically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to pushing our governments to adopt ecologically sound forest and wildfire management practices, we have the power to change course if we work together and act now.
My Climate Plan is a member-driven community to help each other build a climate safe future for all. Join My Climate Plan as a founding member today to get help to make your household and community climate safe.