Air quality advisory lifted in Metro Vancouver as officials warn of difficult wildfire season ahead
Metro Vancouver has ended its air quality advisory, citing favourable winds and cooler temperatures.
Given the presence of two out-of-control wildfires near Harrison Lake, however, there is the potential for smoke to return, the regional district said in a statement Thursday.
The advisory, which warned of fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone, had been in place since Wednesday, and future advisories may be needed depending on winds, temperatures and wildfire behaviour in the coming days.
Much of Canada and the United States is still grappling with poor air quality from what experts say could be one of the most devastating years for wildfires on record.
As of Thursday in B.C., there were 82 wildfires burning across the province, and a total of 382 wildfires had sparked since April 1.
Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma told reporters at a news conference that the 520,520 hectares burned so far this year already exceeds the total amount burned in 16 of the last 20 wildfire seasons in the province.
Ninety-nine per cent of the burned area has been in the Prince George Fire Centre in the northeast of the province.
The Donnie Creek wildfire complex north of Fort St. John is responsible for more than half of the total burned area, estimated at 310,805 hectares as of Thursday.
So far this year, 240 of B.C.’s wildfires have been human caused and 132 have been started by lighting. Most of the destruction has been the result of naturally caused fires, which have burned 444,079 hectares.
AIR QUALITY CONCERNS
In Metro Vancouver, the air quality risk has been reduced to low in most areas, a significant improvement from Wednesday, when skylines and landmarks were hard to make out.
However, summer hasn’t even officially started yet and experts warn this could be an indication of what the next few months will look like.
“We’ve seen a forecast that we can expect to see smoke right through the summer. So it will be really important for people and for the health-care system to monitor the wildfire smoke that we’re being exposed to and to respond to that as it happens,” said Dr. Michael Schwandt, medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health.
Health officials are urging people to start investing in clean air filters for their homes.
”An N95 mask does reduce some of the particles that are in smoke," said Dr. Emily Newhouse, a medical health officer for Fraser Health.
"It doesn't get rid of everything though, there are gasses that still pass through an N95 that you'll still be exposed to if you're outside during a smoke event.”
Schwandt said people most at risk from wildfire smoke are those with existing heart and lung conditions as well as seniors, young children and pregnant women.
He said B.C. has data that shows wildfire smoke exposure results in more “people seeing family physicians for asthma-related visits (and) more people filling prescriptions in the pharmacy to treat asthma.”
Ma urged all B.C. residents to "take 20 minutes" to make a plan for what they will do if they have to evacuate their homes this wildfire season.
"Now is the time to understand the hazards that you face in the regions that you live in, and to prepare yourselves, your family, your home and community for any potential fires," she said.
Kimberly Kelly, a fire information officer for the Coastal Fire Centre of the BC WIldfire Service, said the two fires near Harrison Lake have been showing "aggressive fire behaviour."
"We've had the driest May on record," Kelly said. "That means that our fire danger rating is moderate to high and in some places extreme within the Coastal Fire Centre.”
Right now, the outlook for June is more of the same, according to Matt MacDonald, lead fire weather forecaster for the BC Wildfire Service.
Speaking at the afternoon news conference with Ma, MacDonald said drought conditions in much of the province last October set the stage for this year's wildfire season, and the abnormally hot and dry May continued to heighten the risk.
MacDonald explained that the snowpack at high elevations in much of the province melted away weeks earlier than is typical, leaving more fuel exposed for potential lightning strikes to cause wildfires.
More above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation in June is expected to continue to dry out those fuels and increase fire risk, MacDonald said.
Compounding all of this risk is the fact that the hot, dry weather appears likely to persist across Canada, leading to wildfire challenges in other provinces as well, and limiting the availability of out-of-province resources to help fight B.C. fires.
"Nationally, we tend to leverage resource-sharing agreements with our partner agencies," said Neal McLoughlin, superintendent of predictive services for the BC Wildfire Service.
"All agencies across Canada are busy this year, and there is a real shortage of resources for sharing. This could be a year where we have to really dig deep and use the resources we have here in B.C. to address our situation."
CAMPFIRE BANS IN PLACE
The Vancouver Park Board has banned all barbecues in city parks and beaches due to the dry conditions Thursday.
The fire danger rating across much of B.C. is now high or extreme, triggering a campfire ban for most of the province.
The penalty for those caught breaking the fire ban is a $1,000 ticket.
If you’re convicted in court, you could be fined up to $100,000 or face one year in jail.
If you contribute to a wildfire you could be on the hook for the firefighting costs.
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