Wildfire Smoke | Northern Health

Wildfire Smoke

Wildfire smoke is made up of very small particles and gasses that can be breathed into lungs and cause effects throughout the body. During wildfire season, smoke conditions can change very quickly.

Wildfire smoke causes or worsens a wide range of health effects
  • Everyone is affected differently; not everyone will experience symptoms.
  • Most health effects of wildfire smoke are short-term and will get better when the smoke clears.
  • The long-term effects of wildfire smoke are not well understood.
  • Effects can be made worse when it is hot.

Common Symptoms (usually managed without medical attention)

  • Eye, nose and throat irritation
  • Headaches

More serious symptoms (should seek medical attention)

  • Troubles breathing
  • Severe cough
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain or heart palpitations
  • Worsening of heart and lung conditions like COPD or asthma

Health effects of wildfire smoke - BCCDC (PDF)

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Those most sensitive or vulnerable to these effects
  • Those with heart or lung disease
  • Unborn children
  • Children
  • Older adults
  • Smokers
  • Those involved in strenuous outdoor work or outdoor sports
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Be aware of current smoke conditions

Can you smell or see smoke? – Our senses are sometimes the best tools we have.

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Reduce your exposure to wildfire smoke
  • Take it easy if you’re not feeling well (the more strongly you breathe, the more smoke you will breathe in).
  • If you’re living with chronic illness, update your personal care plan for times when it is smoky and ensure your rescue medications are filled and accessible.
  • Stay indoors with windows and doors closed, Clean air shelters (PDF) while staying cool (Beat the Heat).
  • Use a portable indoor air cleaner (PDF) or talk with your service provider to ask about changes to your home’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Keep indoor air clean (avoid smoking tobacco, using wood-burning stoves/fireplaces, burning candles, scents, incenses or vacuuming)
  • Visit a community clean clean air shelter (PDF) or a location that has a large volume of filtered air (such as shopping malls, swimming pools, public libraries, etc.).
  • While in a vehicle, keep the windows closed with air conditioning set to recirculate.
  • Limit your time outdoors (especially those who are more vulnerable and who are physically active) and take advantage of times when the air quality improves.
  • Stay put. Since smoke conditions can change very fast, it’s best not to try to leave the area (there is no guarantee that conditions will be better elsewhere and relocating can cause added stress).
  • Visit HealthLinkBC, call 8-1-1 (non-emergency), see your doctor, or call 9-1-1 (emergency) if you’re experiencing symptoms such as difficulty in breathing, chest pain or discomfort, and sudden onset of cough or irritation of airways. Please note that if your local telephone provider does not support 8-1-1, you can call 1-604-215-8110.
  • Stay healthy. Maintaining good overall health is a good way to prevent health effects resulting from short-term exposure to air pollution.
  • People who smoke should avoid smoking when the air is smoky and consider nicotine replacement therapy to manage cravings. For more information on free resources visit BC Smoking Cessation Program and quitnow.ca.
  • Outdoor workers can visit Work Safe BC’s Wildfire Smoke: Frequently Asked Questions.
  • How to Prepare for the Wildfire Smoke Season - BCCDC (PDF)
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Community Response to Wildfire Smoke
  • Those planning outdoor events or activities should make sure they have a smoke plan in place before the wildfire season begins. See Considerations for Poor Air Quality Events to help to make these decisions.
  • Communities should set up a clean air shelter (PDF) in a public building for those who are unable to set up or purchase their own air cleaning units, or for those who may be feeling socially isolated. Ask your local government representative about setting up a clean air shelter in your community.  
  • Communities or individuals at high risk for health effects due to smoke will not be evacuated when there is poor air quality. During times of wildfire smoke, it is safer to shelter in place since smoke conditions can change very fast and evacuations can be stressful.
  • Communities looking for more information about public health and wildfire smoke can visit Wildfire Smoke Response Planning - BCCDC for wildfire guidance and detailed evidence reviews.
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Face Masks and Particulate Respirators
  • Seek cleaner air spaces before resorting to using particulate respirators (they have many limitations).
  • Simple dust masks will not provide any protection from small particles or gasses in smoke.
  • N95 particulate respirator limitations:
    • They can reduce exposure to fine particles, but not other harmful substances included in wildfire smoke.
    • They are only effective for those who are properly fitted and who are familiar with their use.
    • They are not effective when damp from water or sweat, or when there is an improper seal due to fit or facial hair.
    • They do not fit children’s faces properly.
    • They can hinder breathing, which can be risky for those with existing breathing or heart conditions.
    • They must be replaced when damp or dirty.
  • If you need to be outside during a smoke event and want to wear a mask:
    • Choose one labeled ‘N95’ and ‘particulate respirator’.
    • Follow the fit instructions: a tight seal around the mouth and nose is needed to protect your lungs against smoke.
    • Take regular breaks from wearing the mask so your body can recover from the increased breathing effort required (the increased breathing effort can outweigh the benefits for people with chronic heart or lung disease). If you feel more short of breath with the respirator on, do not use it.
    • Replace used and dirty masks regularly.
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