The 2023 wildfire season was Canada’s worst on record.

High temperatures and widespread drought fuelled over 6,600 fires, burning a record-breaking 18.4 million hectares, an area more than double the size of New Brunswick. The fires emitted nearly 480 million tonnes of carbon, five times the emissions of an average season, turning the skies hazy and orange and blanketing much of North America in wildfire smoke for weeks.

Many regions of Canada experienced over 40 days where air pollution concentrations exceeded the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines, leading to periods where Canada had some of the worst air quality in the world.

With 2023 behind us the question now is: will 2024 be as bad?

Heading into the 2024 wildfire season

Many of the fires in northern regions continued to burn throughout the winter. These fires, known as “holdover” fires, along with Canada’s warmest winter on record and extreme drought in many regions, fuelled an early start to the 2024 wildfire season.

This year, as of May 22, 2024, there have already been over 1,200 fires, burning nearly 400,000 hectares and causing multiple evacuation orders in northern British Columbia. Smoke from the fires near Fort Nelson triggered air quality alerts across Alberta and the Midwestern United States.

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Most of Canada is forecasted to have above average “fire weather” conditions — hot, dry and windy — throughout the summer, due in large part to the low snow levels, ongoing dry conditions and above average temperatures.

Simply put, these early season fires and current weather conditions indicate that Canada may be on track for another severe wildfire season.

How wildfire smoke affects our health

Wildfire smoke can travel thousands of kilometres, exposing communities both near and far to extremely high air pollution concentrations.

Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of very small particles and other hazardous pollutants that can be inhaled into the deepest parts of the lungs. Once inhaled, these particles can trigger systemic inflammation and cause or exacerbate existing respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, increasing the risk of hospitalization and death.

Emerging evidence indicates that wildfire smoke may affect our brains, increase the risk of adverse birth outcomes and have long-term health implications. There is no safe level of wildfire smoke exposure, and even very low concentrations can pose a risk.

Strategies to prepare for a summer of wildfire smoke

As Canada faces the potential of another severe wildfire season, it is important to be prepared for prolonged and intense periods of wildfire smoke.

Planning ahead can equip you with the knowledge and resources you need to effectively mitigate exposure and protect your — and your family’s — health on smoky days. Below are some strategies and tools you can use as we head into the 2024 wildfire season:

1 - Understand and plan for your personal risk

Wildfire smoke does not affect everyone equally. Young children, older adults, pregnant people and individuals who live or work outdoors are more susceptible to smoke.

People with chronic conditions, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease and diabetes, also face an increased risk. If you have a chronic condition, talk to your doctor about how to manage your health on smoky days and make sure you have access to essential medications.

Be sure to listen to your body when it’s smoky outside. Reduce your exposure if you feel unwell or have symptoms like coughing or throat irritation and seek medical attention for more severe symptoms such as shortness of breath or chest pain.

2 - Know how to check your local air quality and smoke forecasts

Air quality can change rapidly during periods of wildfire smoke. Interactive maps like AirNow and PurpleAir allow you to easily check current air quality conditions using the Air Quality Index. Also pay attention to your local Air Quality Health Index.

Smartphone apps like WeatherCAN and Smoke Sense can be used to check local conditions and set up custom air quality alerts.

Air quality forecasts, such as FireSmoke and FireWork, can be useful for understanding when and where smoky conditions might occur over the next few days.

3 - Make sure you have access to clean indoor air

Staying indoors is one of the best ways to reduce exposure. To keep the air in your home as clean as possible, close your windows and doors and — if you have one — set your forced air system to “recirculate mode.”

Consider using a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter, as they can significantly improve indoor air quality when it’s smoky outside. If purchasing an air cleaner, make sure to choose the right one for your space and use it properly.

Do-it-yourself air cleaners are an affordable, equally effective alternative. Public spaces with good air filtration, such as libraries, malls and community centres, can also provide easy access to cleaner indoor air.

4 - If you need to go outdoors, know how to protect yourself

When possible, minimize your time spent outdoors and reduce your activity levels. If your job requires you to work outdoors then check with your province or territory — and union if you are a member — for your rights to a safe work environment.

If you must venture outside, respirator masks (such as N95s) can significantly reduce exposure to the particles in smoke, so long as they fit properly. And if you need to drive, be sure to keep the windows shut and recirculate the air in your car — and be aware that running your car in heavy wildfire smoke can cause damage.

As our world warms, we are all going to have to learn to live with increasingly frequent periods of intense wildfire smoke. While efforts to mitigate, and adapt to, global warming occur over the long term in the here and now, the best we can do is be aware, prepare for the worst and connect with our communities to build smoke resiliency.The Conversation

Stephanie Cleland, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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