Expect every year to be ‘awful’: Experts weigh how to protect B.C. public from wildfire smoke

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If the last few years are any indication, wildfire smoke is becoming a fact of life in B.C. — and with that comes the inevitable questions about how it’s affecting our health.

As it turns out, the experts still have nearly as many questions as average British Columbians.

On Wednesday, scientists from across North America gathered in Vancouver at a workshop organized by the B.C. Lung Association to share what they’ve learned so far and what they still need to figure out.

One message came out loud and clear — the changing climate means we can expect longer and more severe fire seasons in the future, and we need to do what we can to protect public health.

« We need to go into every wildfire season expecting it to be awful, because if we do that then we’ll be ready for whatever comes at us, » Sarah Henderson, senior scientist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, told the conference.

Henderson laid out some of the research findings. Living in smoky conditions during the wildfire season might cause lung irritation, trigger asthma and bring increased risk of dying from a stroke or from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

During the record-breaking summers of 2017 and 2018, researchers measured a 40 per cent increase in people needing Ventolin inhalers — commonly used for breathing problems — and an 18.6 per cent increase in doctor visits for asthma, Henderson said.

Millions in additional health care

Those poor health outcomes can impact society in other ways, too. When a group of researchers looked into the health effects of a 2001 wildfire that burned for seven days in Alberta, they estimated that smoke inhalation accounted for an additional $10-$12 million in health care costs.

But the actual contents of wildfire smoke and its effects on humans can vary widely depending on what type of tree or plant matter is burning, if the fire is smouldering or flaming, the weather conditions and distance from the fire.

And we don’t have enough information about how the smoke affects babies in utero, infants, pregnant women, or about the long-term effects of repeated exposure. 

« We know almost nothing about the mental health impacts, beyond anecdotes, » Henderson said.

The long-term effects are particularly concerning when it comes to those who spend their time closest to the source — the firefighters who head out to the front lines every summer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently studying a cohort of these men and women, but it’ll take a few more years before data is available, the conference heard.

Researchers are studying the long-term effects of wildfire smoke on firefighters. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

John Balmes, a professor at the University of California’s School of Public Health, pointed out that firefighters are often exposed to toxic gases that don’t reach the rest of the population, including carbon monoxide. At the same time, they generally don’t wear respirators or masks because the equipment isn’t practical for the job and can even melt onto their faces.

« We actually don’t have an effective way to protect the wildland firefighters, » Balmes said. « We need new technology. »

The overarching message of Wednesday’s meeting was that there’s an urgent need for more research and new strategies for mitigating damage to human health from wildfires.

« We need to change the conversation about smoke. There’s this deep desire for these things to go away and not come back again, » Henderson said.

« But we will have more bad wildfire seasons — we may have worse wildfire seasons. »

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Fort McMurray homes see normal levels of contaminants following 2016 wildfire: study

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A new study indicates dust from homes in Fort McMurray, Alta., had normal levels of indoor contaminants a year after a devastating forest fire hit the city, suggesting residents did not face an elevated health risk in the aftermath of the blaze.

Arthur Chan, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Toronto, said pollutants in house dust his team analyzed actually contained fewer toxins than homes in many other Canadian cities.

“We don’t see any cause for alarm,” Chan said. “We found that the levels are below what the guidelines considered as risky.”


READ MORE:
Wood Buffalo councillors approve $2M to help Fort McMurray residents rebuild after wildfire but some are disappointed

The results were published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Chan said he and two other researchers spent three weeks going house to house in July 2017, about 14 months after the blaze, sucking up dust from bedrooms and living rooms — areas with the highest exposure — with commercial grade vacuums. They later analyzed what they collected in a lab.

The team went through more than 60 houses for the study.


READ MORE:
2 years after wildfire, insurance frustrations flare up during Fort McMurray rebuild

The researchers were driven to perform their work after residents raised safety concerns in wake of the massive wildfire that forced 88,000 people from their homes. Chan said the research was believed to be the first to look for the retention of “fire-derived pollutants” indoors.

“That’s partly because these kinds of fires are rare and it’s hard to mobilize quickly to go into the community to do the study,” Chan said.

The research team was examining the house dust for the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are found in high concentrations in burned forests, and heavy metals that are found in high concentrations in ashes from burned buildings.


READ MORE:
Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo sees nearly 11% population drop since 2015

They found trace elements of the heavy metal arsenic in house dust in neighbourhoods that were heavily damaged by fire compared to non-damaged neighbourhoods, but the levels weren’t above Alberta’s health guidelines, Chan explained. The researchers found no evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in Fort McMurray house dust.

“We still don’t know why, but we think maybe people did a very good job cleaning or maybe from this event there isn’t that much of an impact indoors,” Chan said. “Whatever it is, it is minimizing the health risk.”


READ MORE:
Mental-health struggles, depression linger after Fort McMurray wildfire: study

He said he hopes his results informs rebuilding and recovery efforts after wildfires.

“We expect this will be an important set of results for the future because there are likely going to be more wildfires because of climate change and difference in land uses,” he said.

Chan and his team are working on several other related studies. They have gone back to Fort McMurray three other times to look at long-term levels of pollutants inside homes as well as seasonal effects.

They are also working with a lung specialist who is conducting a parallel study looking at the residents of the same houses Chan’s team has examined.

“The idea is to compare what’s around you to what’s in you,” Chan said.

Watch below: A wildfire that forced 80,000 people in northern Alberta to flee more than a year ago has finally been extinguished. (Filed September 2017).






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December wildfire burning out of control near Cadomin in western Alberta

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It’s not something you’d expect to hear in December, but a wildfire is burning out of control in the western Alberta foothills, south of Edson and Hinton.

Alberta Wildfire said the blaze broke out Friday afternoon in an area that has seen little snowfall so far this winter.

High winds of more than 100 km/h have fanned the flames.

READ MORE: Mountain pine beetle epidemic sparks wildfire concerns in Jasper

A wind warning is in effect for the foothills, and Environment Canada said gusts of 100 to 120 km/h were expected overnight and into Saturday, before the winds are set to weaken early Saturday afternoon.

The province said the wind speed has made it impossible to determine the size of the fire, which is burning about 14 kilometres northeast of the hamlet of Cadomin.

Ground crews are on the scene alongside heavy equipment such as graders and dozers.

An Alberta Emergency Alert said the wildfire is burning approximately 10 kilometres south of Robb and is heading north by northeast.

Robb and Mercoal are the that could potentially be affected by the fire.

Kevin Hampton, owner of Bryan Hotel in Robb, said the area is home to about 300 people.

He spotted “pretty good smoke” around 3 p.m. Friday.

Hampton said the skies cleared in the evening after wind persisted all day.

He thought the smoke was coming from near the Coalspur Mine, about 10 kilometres to the south.

READ MORE: ‘Hard on water:’ Smoke not the only long range effect of wildfires

Stefan Felsing with Yellowhead County said peace officers are in the area to assist residents in case an evacuation is needed.

No evacuation alerts or orders had been issued as of 11 p.m. Friday.

Yellowhead County has also opened an emergency operations centre to coordinate its efforts, Felsing said.

Staff are in continuous contact with the province in case the situation changes, he added.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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‘It blows my mind’: How B.C. destroys a key natural wildfire defence every year

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Last year, 12,812 hectares of B.C. forest was sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate. It’s an annual event — a mass extermination of broadleaf trees mandated by the province.

The eradication of trees like aspen and birch on regenerating forest stands is meant to make room for more commercially valuable conifer species like pine and Douglas fir.

But experts say it also removes one of the best natural defences we have against wildfire, at a time when our warming climate is helping make large, destructive fires more and more common.

« It blows my mind that nobody is talking about this, » said James Steidle, a member of the anti-glyphosate group Stop the Spray B.C.

« The experts know this stuff. They’ve known about this stuff for decades, but it’s just not being translated into reality. »

When aspen and other broadleaves are allowed to flourish, they form « natural fuel breaks » if their leaves are out, according to Lori Daniels, a professor of forest ecology at the University of B.C. That’s why aspen stands are often referred to as « asbestos forests » in wildfire science circles.

A forests ministry spokesperson said the government recognizes that aspen and other deciduous trees can help reduce the wildfire threat to communities, and that in the future, more thought will be put into planting broadleaf trees near homes and businesses.

Nonetheless, the rules about aspen in managed forest stands remain largely unchanged.

The province’s Forest Planning and Practices Regulation states that when a block of forest is regrowing after a wildfire or logging, broadleaves can’t make up more than five per cent of trees, or two hectares — whichever total is smaller. The concern is that trees like aspen will out-compete conifer species, which are the lifeblood of the timber industry.

If there’s too much aspen, the block must be sprayed with glyphosate, a chemical known more familiarly as the active ingredient in Roundup. Over the last three years, 42,531 hectares of B.C. forest have been treated with the herbicide.

‘That’s just nuts’

« At the end of the day, we have rules that make fire-resistant trees illegal in our forests. That’s just nuts, » Steidle said.

Aspen naturally thrives after a forest has been cleared by logging or wildfire. Their root systems can survive for thousands of years underground, and they’re capable of sprouting new clone trees as soon as there’s enough sunshine and moisture.

Glyphosate doesn’t just kill aspen trees — it can also destroy the root system.

« When you spray a forest, that’s going to last for the lifetime of the forest, » Steidle said.

The Shovel Lake wildfire burns through a coniferous forest in the summer of 2018. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

According to Daniels, that’s a major loss in a province that struggling with how to prepare for wildfires after two record-setting seasons in a row.

« When fire is burning through needle leaf forest, it tends to be very vigorous and very fast-moving, » Daniels said. « When fire comes into a forest that has broadleaf trees in it, the conditions change so the fire behaviour is less vigorous and the rate of spread slows down. »

Trees like aspen naturally have a higher water content and don’t usually contain the volatile chemical compounds that can make trees like pine so flammable. They also provide more shade, which creates a cooler, more humid environment in the understory, Daniels explained.

Often, a « candling » wildfire that’s engulfed the crowns of a conifer forest will fall back down to ground level when it hits a clump of aspen.

« If a fire is spreading toward a community and we know that there’s a band of aspen trees that it’s going to have to cross before it approaches that community, the firefighters can use that band of aspen trees to make a stand and try to stop the fire, » Daniels said.

Spraying causes ‘irreparable harm’

The research backs that up. One 2010 study conducted by a fire behaviour specialist with the federal government tested the fire-resistance of aspen by doing experimental burns of a forest that was split between conifers and trembling aspen.

Even when there was a « high-intensity flame front » in the conifers — with flames leaping into the crowns of the trees — the fire « failed to sustain itself upon entering the leafed-out hardwood portion of the plot, » the study says.

A test burn conducted by a federal fire behaviour specialist shows, at bottom right, how aspen can resist a wildfire spreading through jack pine and black spruce. (The Forestry Chronicle)

Daniels believes B.C. needs to immediately change its forest management strategies to prioritize growth of aspen and other broadleaves.

« We’re still stuck in the vortex where we’re trying to maximize timber production from conifers, and that is causing irreparable harm in our forests, given climate change and the types of changes in forests and insects and fire that we’re witnessing, » she said.

The province has promised it’s updating forest practices as new research becomes available. That includes some recent adjustments to the rules on aspens in the Cariboo-Chilcotin. Because the region is so dry and few aspen can survive anyway, they’re not considered a threat to local conifers and don’t need to be sprayed, a ministry spokesperson said.

Calls for glyphosate ban

But critics like Steidle would like to see a complete end to the use of glyphosate in forests across the province.

« We need to ban glyphosate. There’s no question, » he said.

On a recent visit to the area of northern B.C. burned by the Shovel Lake wildfire this summer, James Steidle documented aspen trees that were left standing even though surrounding conifers were incinerated. (James Steidle)

The idea has some political support. Last week, Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver raised the issue during question period in the B.C. legislature, and asked how the province could justify spraying growing forests.

« The result is reduced plant diversity, leading to monocropped forests that are vulnerable to more frequent and destructive wildfires and beetle infestations, » Weaver said.

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‘What’s our new normal?’: Ontario student escapes California wildfire after mass shooting kills classmate

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As a cloud of devastation hung over the heads of students at Pepperdine University following a mass shooting which killed one of their own, a literal « orange glow » made its way toward the school.

Marlee Hewitt, a Windsor, Ont. native currently studying at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., landed in Detroit, Mich. Monday evening following a harrowing few days, after severe fires sparked near Paradise, which sits on the north-end of California. A second blaze emerged in and around Malibu.

She said the whirlwind of events started Friday, when she was informed by her residence advisor that she and everyone at the school would have to leave the campus immediately.

A friend of Hewitt’s sent her this photo of the wildfire overlooking California’s Pepperdine University. (Marlee Hewitt)

« They brought us down to the fieldhouse where I met up with another friend. We were looking at this plume of smoke coming towards campus, » said Hewitt, adding she had to quickly decide whether to escape or seek shelter on campus overnight.

She said she decided to leave, while many of her friends elected to stay.

« It was a very, very emotional time, very hard. It’s been quite a whirlwind. »

A member of the Sacramento County Coroner’s office looks for human remains in the rubble of a house burned at the Camp Fire, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Paradise, Calif. (John Locher/Associated Press)

From campus, Hewitt was able to get to a friend’s house, where the two monitored news and looked at photos of the fire which were sent to them by other friends from the university.

« At first, they couldn’t see flames but they could see the orange glow of the fire coming toward them and I think that’s when people started to get very freaked out, » said Hewitt.

« It was obviously very hard for me watching the news and getting these pictures, worrying about my friends who were there. I was very worried for them. »

‘What’s our new normal?’

Reports of the wildfire emerged one day after a gunman entered a Southern California bar Wednesday night and shot and killed 12 people, including a sheriff’s sergeant, before turning the gun on himself.

Hewitt said the community at Pepperdine University is « very, very tiny » and everyone was left with a feeling of « melancholy. »

« It hung over everybody. Everyone, kind of, knows each other, So we had a prayer service and that’s when we heard of the news that a fellow classmate, Alaina, had passed away. »

People attend the procession for the Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Ron Helus, who was shot and killed in a mass shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, U.S., November 8, 2018. (Ringo Chiu/Reuters)

« And then to have this fire, it’s just been quite tolling on everyone’s emotions. »

She said it’s going to take a while for students at Pepperdine University to heal, adding the question of « what’s our new normal? » has been discussed among the school community.

« We’ll have to see what that’s like when we head back to campus. »

Father grateful for his daughter’s safety

Jeff Hewitt, Marlee’s father who lives in Windsor, had spent the entirety of Friday exchanging text messages with her daughter to ensure she was safe.

He said panic started setting in when cell phone service went down in California.

« She couldn’t text us. We couldn’t call her. And it was like, ‘Okay, what is happening?' » said Hewitt, adding it wasn’t until her daughter fled the Malibu area entirely that they were able to exchange messages again.

Jeff Hewitt, who picked up his daughter from the Detroit airport Monday night, says it was to see how the fire’s progression while being so far away from her. (Arms Bumanlag/CBC)

He added being so far away from his daughter during two « disasters » was a trying time for him, but is optimistic knowing his daughter’s safe. »

« Being 3,200 kilometeres away doesn’t make it any ea​sier, but everything’s going to turn out just fine. »

Marlee hopes to return to California after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. For now, she’ll be continuing her studies online.

The wildfire has left 42 confirmed deaths in its wake and hundreds of people unaccounted for.

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