To date, tens of thousands of people have had to evacuate from their homes as a result of the wildfires in British Columbia.
As evacuation orders are lifted and affected individuals are able to return home, many may be wondering if it is safe to do so. Air quality from smoke is one of the main concerns facing evacuees.
To help people better make an informed decision, here are things to consider in planning for your return home:
- Wildfire smoke has drifted across many areas of the province. In many cases, air quality conditions in communities where people have been evacuated due to fire risk are worse than in home communities.
- To have a sense of how conditions compare where you are, visit the air quality health index website: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/epd/bcairquality/readings/aqhi-table.xml
- There are also additional public health concerns with respect to large groups of people being housed together, e.g., in some cases, gastro-intestinal illness has spread at evacuation centres.
It is important to remember that smoke from a wildfire may not be directly correlated with proximity to a fire. Often, wind patterns mean that the smoke is actually worse in other areas of the province. Evacuation alerts or orders are based on the fire risk alone – not smoke conditions.
Several weeks of hot, dry conditions are still expected. Experts are predicting that there will continue to be more communities evacuated because of fires as the season progresses. That means that resources and available lodging for evacuees will likely continue to be stretched.
For these reasons, public health officials are recommending that evacuees, who are now able to return home as a result of orders being lifted, do so.
If you are at increased risk of health concerns as a result of smoke – no matter where you are in the province:
- Have rescue medication on hand at all times and a plan to follow if your rescue medication cannot bring your condition under control.
- Look for indoor environments that might be less smoky, such as shopping malls, community centres and libraries. Consider creating an area in your home that is designated as having clean air. You can do this by ensuring that doors and windows stay closed, and adding a HEPA air filter.
- Avoid physical exertion because the amount of smoke you breathe increases as your breathing rate increases.
- Keep hydrated as it helps your body deal with inflammation.
To watch a video of British Columbia’s deputy provincial health officer's advice about wildfire smoke and returning evacuees, visit: https://youtu.be/K_c553oeSHE
For more information on air quality throughout British Columbia, visit: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/epd/bcairquality/readings/aqhi-table.xml
For videos on smoke and air quality, including on whether or not you should return home to your community, visit: http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/wildfire-status/get-prepared-in-high-risk-communities/air-quality
For information from Interior Health on staying safe in smoky conditions: https://www.interiorhealth.ca/AboutUs/MediaCentre/NewsReleases/Documents/Air%20quality%20and%20health%20could%20be%20impacted%20by%20smoky%20skies.pdf
For information for employers regarding workers working outside in smoky conditions, visit: http://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/public-safety-and-emergency-services/wildfire-status/current-wildfire-situation/wildfire-smoke-faq-pdf-en.pdf