Forecasting and managing the health impacts of smoke from wildfires
On average, there are around 8,000 wildfires in Canada every year – and each of those fires creates plumes of smoke that can travel across entire provinces. Summers in Alberta are becoming synonymous with wildfire smoke.
Smokey summers is expected to increase as weather patterns become drier and warmer. A changing climate can potentially increase the amount of smoke that Alberta’s experiences up to 12 times by 2100, says wildfire experts at the 2019 Alberta Capital Airshed Clean Air Forum in June 2019.
In response to a wildfire, municipalities have a major role in prevention and mitigation through policies and infrastructure.
The tools and resources to forecast smoky days is available and improving. Similar to weather forecasts, we can now predict when and where wildfire smoke will be present. If we can forecast the location and amount of wildfire smoke, what can be done to prevent or mitigate the impacts of smoke?
Predicting, forecasting and warning
Like weather forecasts, the resources exist to predict the timing and magnitude of smokiness. These forecasts take into account the wind conditions, weather, fire locations, type of fuel and the size of the fire. Smoke forecasts can be included in air quality health advisories.
One wildfire smoke forecasting system in Canada – www.firesmoke.ca – dates back to 2007, when health authorities, government agencies, researchers and weather forecasters identified the need for a tool to predict smoky conditions. British Columbia and Alberta implemented a pilot program to adapt an existing forecasting system from the United States for use in Canada.
After launching in British Columbia and Alberta, www.firesmoke.ca expanded to eastern Canada in 2013.
The smoke forecast system matches meteorological forecasts with wildfire locations. Smoke paths and dispersion is calculated and the plume trajectories are outputted onto the map. With the primary goal to forecast for human health, the forecasts consider ground-level plumes of particulate matter (PM2.5).
The FireWork forecasting system comes from Environment Canada. It provides maps and predictions for 24 to 48 hours across Canada, including ground level and atmospheric plumes.
Fire information – including locations and types of fuel – are derived from the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System. The database includes fire danger conditions and any occurrences.
Air quality advisories
Following a smoke forecast, the next step is an advisory or warning for conditions that can impact human health.
Air quality advisories are based on Canada’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). The index considers particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), in addition to other atmospheric chemistry factors such as ozone.
Smoke forecasts focus on PM2.5 – the component of smoke that is attributed to potential health impacts. Although air quality advisories consider more factors, there is a good chance that heavy smoke be the primary concern during serious smoke events. Environment Canada posts air quality forecasts for PM2.5, PM10 and ozone on maps for the entire country.
Impacts of wildfire smoke
The immediate impacts of a forest fire can be immense. In Alberta, two out of the top three costliest disasters were from fires. Extending beyond the impacts of flames and heat, smoke has the potential to travel hundreds of kilometres – far from the site of the fire.
Smoke from burning plants, trees and other biological materials can have cardiovascular, respiratory and other effects on humans. The types of health impacts depend on the length of exposure, how much smoke is in the air and the health of the individual.
The small particles common in wildfire smoke – particulates – are the main cause of human health concerns. By irritating respiratory and nasal systems, smoke can make it difficult to breath normally. These difficulties are a particular concern for individuals with existing breathing challenges, such as asthma or bronchitis. Challenges to the respiratory have an impact on the cardiovascular system. Again, individuals with existing cardiovascular challenges are at particular risk from wildfire smoke.
In a review of wildfire smoke studies around the world, researchers concluded there is an association between exposure to wildfire smoke and respiratory effects, including difficulties breathing and infections. Cardiovascular impacts, potential birth defects and mental health effects are possible.
Alberta Health Services identifies the groups that are among the highest risk include children, older adults, have heart or lung disease or are pregnant. The impacts associated to wildfire smoke are similar in effects and high risk groups for general air pollution.
What can be done about wildfire smoke
A central challenge to managing air quality is little can be done to remove potentially harmful particulates or chemical. Cleaning the air in a single room or building is possible, but it is next to impossible on a community or provincial level.
That means it comes down to minimizing exposure.
Actions that citizens can take include avoiding time outdoors when air quality is below healthy levels. It begins by identifying when deliberate action or avoidance is required – air quality advisories are the start. Both meteorological and health authorities issue advisories when necessary.
When air quality is not satisfactory for prolonged exposure, citizens are encouraged to reduce their time outside. Improving air filters in homes and buildings can remove particulate matter from the air intake to create safe zones inside. Clean air shelters can provide relief for individuals that live in buildings with poor ventilation.
Policies to improve air quality
Considering smoke is not contained by jurisdictional borders, a challenge in wildfire smoke management is cross-governmental cooperation. Strategies to mitigate the effects of smoke and poor air quality often fall to health authorities, first responders and local communities.
Municipal policies related to wildfire smoke are a branch of policies for managing air quality in general. The strategies include informing the public when there are air quality concerns and promoting alternatives to outdoor activities.
The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control reviewed the public health responses to wildfire smoke throughout Canada. By looking at the existing responses and isolating the current gaps, they offered the following suggestions to integrate with municipal and regional health planning:
- Prepare for smoke events through employee and community education, particularly for frontline staff and physicians that will interact with citizens.
- Create an information hub to centralize communications and provide resources prior to smoke events.
- Support planning for clean air shelters.
- Create a strategy to communicate during smoke events, including forecasts, rapid responses and education.
- Partner with community groups to pass on information.
- Partner with health providers, with a focus on vulnerable populations and mental health concerns.
- In homes and businesses, promote the use of HEPA filters through partnerships with HVAC installers and organizations.
“As urban environmental problems are increasingly linked at the global level, challenges concerning governance reinforce the problem of responsibility who will bear the burden of reinforcing and monitoring these policies?”
This challenge is also an opportunity. Municipalities can be leaders in strategic cooperation to find solutions that mitigate and manage the impacts of smoke on their communities.