Aug 23, 2021

Wildfire Smoke: Information Round-up!

Posted by: cross



PGAIR typically focuses on air quality issues that people in our airshed have some control over - things like smoke from wood-burning appliances, emissions from vehicle idling and the burning of yard waste, and road dust that gets kicked up after the spring melt. 

But while we may not have control over wildfires and the smoke they create, we feel remiss not to talk a bit about the health impacts of wildfire smoke and how folks can protect themselves during Smoky Skies Advisories. 

photo credit: 250 News, 2017
photo credit: 250 News, 2017


Health Risks 

Wildfire smoke results from the burning of forests and grasslands, and can be a major source of toxic air pollutants. PM2.5 or “fine particulate matter” is the wildfire smoke pollutant that causes the biggest problems for human health, since the particles are small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs. 

Although tiny, PM2.5 can cause mighty health problems. Some of the symptoms brought on by wildfire smoke are relatively mild and can be managed without medical care, like (1):

  • Burning eyes
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Phlegm production
  • Wheezy breathing
  • Mild cough 

More problematically, wildfire smoke inhalation can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases like asthma and COPD, and is even linked to premature death (2, 3)! 

Smoke may be carried thousands of kilometres downwind, and distant locations can be affected almost as severely as areas close to the fire. This means that folks in Prince George can be impacted by wildfire smoke even when there are no fires happening in the immediate area (4).

Suffice it to say, it’s a good idea to learn how to reduce your exposure to PM2.5 during wildfire smoke episodes, especially since these are expected to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change. As forest fire researcher Mike Flannigan puts it, “The future is smoky [...] we better get used to it” (5).

Not everyone is impacted equally

Some people are more vulnerable to the health impacts of wildfire smoke than others and should be particularly careful to pay attention to local air quality reports (2, 6): 

  • People with heart or lung diseases, diabetes and other chronic illness
  • People in living in poverty or isolation                    
  • Older adults
  • Children (including teenagers!)
  • Pregnant women
  • People involved in strenuous outdoor work or sports

That said, everyone’s health is at risk during heavy smoke conditions, and the health impacts of longer smoke episodes - which are becoming more common in BC - are not yet understood. 

Measuring the health risk

With all of the wildfires in BC this summer, you’ve probably noticed the terms AQHI and AQI being thrown around in the news. 

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a tool used to communicate how polluted the air currently is or how polluted it might become. Think of it as a yardstick running from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution (7). 

The newer Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) tells you about your health risk from air pollution on any given day, providing a simple number from 1 to 10 to indicate the health risk associated with local air quality. The higher the AQHI number, the greater the health risk.

More about it, and how AQHI can be used to protect your health, from our neighbours in Alberta: 

You can also find out what the AQHI is like in your community today at

Protecting yourself during wildfire smoke episodes

Here are some tips to keep in mind on days when smoke is heavy (8):

  • Limit your outdoor activity
    This one is no fun, but try to limit strenuous outdoor physical activities as much as possible during periods of smoke exposure.
  • Drink plenty of water
    Drink lots during smoky days to help your body cope. It’s good for you, anyway!
  • Keep the car windows up
    You may like cruising with the wind in your hair, but PM2.5 will take the wind out of your sails on smoke-heavy days. Keep your windows closed and set the ventilation system to recirculate.
  • Keep your indoor airspace as clean as possible by:
    • Reducing sources of indoor air pollution. These include smoking, vacuuming (unless your vacuum is equipped with a HEPA filter), burning incense and candles, and using wood stoves.
    • Preventing infiltration of outside air by keeping your windows, doors and other fresh air intakes closed and properly sealed.
    • Filtering or cleaning indoor air, by:
      • Using better filters on your air circulation system and/or
      • Using a portable indoor air cleaner with a HEPA filter.
  • Visit indoor destinations that have filtered air, like community centres, libraries and shopping malls.
  • If you need to be outside during a smoke event and want to wear a mask, choose one labeled “N95” and “particulate respirator.” Don’t use it if you feel more short of breath with it on, though (9)!


We’ve put together a shortlist of wildfire smoke-related resources that we think are the cream of the crop. Bookmark them and commit them to memory!

  • BC Smoky Skies Subscription Service: Sign up to receive email or SMS alerts when we’re having poor air quality events.
  • High resolution, interactive smoke, fire weather and PM2.5 forecasts.
  • FireWork: The Government of Canada’s wildfire smoke prediction system.
  • BC Wildfire Dashboard: An interactive dashboard produced by the BC Wildfire Service. It shows active wildfire locations throughout the province and information for each, as well as a list of communities with evacuation alerts and orders.
  • BCCDC’s Wildfire Smoke portal: Lots of great fact sheets with information about wildfire smoke and its health impacts, including information about how to prepare for wildfire season. We really like BCCDC’s guide to building a home-made box fan air filter!
  • DriveBC’s Twitter account: Provides live information about road closures due to wildfires and wildfire smoke (and other reasons as well, of course).