Kamloopsians must prepare for poor air quality, not just flames, experts say

From air quality guidelines to HEPA filters, here’s how to prepare for what could be a smoky wildfire season in Kamloops.
A smoke plume glows orange against blue skies at sunset in Kamloops near Tranquille Creek Park, Lac Du Bois Grasslands.
A smoke plume from the East Meadows Plateau Fire located 20 kilometres north of Kamloops glows orange at sunset, August 17, 2022. Kyra Grubb / The Wren

As our sister publication, Sun Peaks Independent News, reported, three human-caused wildfires within the Kamloops [Tk’emlúps] fire centre are acting as an unwanted sign that fire season is upon us and with it, the need to FireSmart our homes and monitor the air quality.

The ease with which wildfires can devastate an area, is in part due to human actions, with 40 per cent of fires occurring due to things like open burns, fireworks and even discarded cigarettes. However, the other 60 per cent of all wildfires in B.C.  begin with a simple stroke of lightning, exemplifying extreme weather’s out-of-control nature.

As human-caused climate change continues to increase the number of extreme weather events, many may wonder what they can do to protect themselves during the wildfire season.

To better understand the challenges we may face, The Wren spoke with a handful of wildfire experts, including Michael Mehta, who is concerned with the public perception of risk, air quality and health. 

Mehta, a geography and environmental studies professor at TRU, suggests that folks’ perception of risk regarding wildfire could be misaligned. 

While we tend to focus on the risk of monetary or material loss due to fire, as in the loss of our homes, heirlooms, photo albums, clothing, important documents and other belongings, Mehta points out that an imminent risk affecting Kamloopsians every year, whether fire reaches our doorstep or not, is air pollution caused by fires burning in our area. 

Understanding the risk of poor air quality 

Mehta has focused on environmental and health risk issues within his 30 year academic career and explains, “A lot of people have perceptions that are often misaligned with the true statistical nature of the risk.”

However, there is a recognition within the scientific community “that risk assessment in terms of calculating the probability of harm is not very accurate when it comes to phenomena, especially those driven by natural forces and human-mediated forces like climate change.”

That said, Mehta believes there is a blind spot in terms of understanding risk when it comes to air pollution, which he says is one of the most muted risks in terms of perception.

Mehta illustrates this blind spot by recounting the behaviour of community members at periods throughout the summer and early fall of 2017 when the most wildfires on record at the time burned across the province, resulting in 1,215,532 hectares of area burned by season’s end. 

“2017 was a horrible year,” Mehta says. “I mean, it was unbelievable how bad it was. We had readings that were two to three times higher than red alert days in China and Beijing.”

“And, the irony was that most people weren’t responding to the warnings. Folks went about business as usual, were going for runs, were taking their kids out to play and were attending events like Rib Fest, for example, that continued even though the air pollution was staggeringly high.” 

While you’d think the risk of wildfire would inspire folks to spring to action, it actually results in quite the opposite, according to Mehta. 

“Because wildfire events and issues associated, like poor air quality, have a tendency to unfold and appear slowly, it allows for a lot of misinformation to grow as well as complacency,” he says.

Complacency regarding Smoky Skies Bulletins and even Air Quality Advisories may be in part due to what Mehta calls “fantastical kinds of messaging online” with phrases like “we’re all going to die anyways, who cares.”

Kamloops residents recall difficulties due to poor air quality

Chelsea Cooper is a Kamloops resident, licensed practical nurse and owner of Both Hands Doula Care. She recalls another devastating year for fires – 2021, during which the Lytton Creek Fire devastated the small town of Lytton.

“The summer of 2021 was positively apocalyptic in Kamloops, and it massively affected my son’s health,” Cooper told The Wren. 

Cooper’s son has asthma, but as he was two years old at the time, couldn’t wear an N95 to help protect his lungs from wildfire smoke.

“The air quality that we lived with from June until October really was absolutely horrific,” Cooper says. “My son wasn’t able to go outside for more than five minutes at a time for the majority of the summer, his asthma symptoms were so exacerbated by the smoke.”

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy posted Smoky Skies Bulletins in Kamloops in September 2022 and during that time, Cooper says her son struggled with general fatigue and breathlessness for nearly two weeks. 

Looking back, she says she couldn’t believe they had lived with worse for nearly three months the summer prior.

“I just kind of became so used to feeling so unwell that I didn’t even really notice the toll the smoke was taking on mine and my son’s health,” she says.

Cooper also spoke to The Wren about the impact poor air quality had on her nursing practice. 

“We were seeing a significant uptick in patients coming in that were experiencing COPD exacerbation and asthma exacerbation,” she says. “We were seeing a lot of elderly folks that, you know, don’t have a high level of general health … respiratory illnesses were really hitting people a lot harder, and it was really, really concerning.”

“And then, as a doula, I had a client who was planning for a home birth, and at 38 weeks pregnant, she and her husband had to leave for the coast because the air quality was so bad that it was not safe for them to have their baby at their home base.”

The BCCDC warns that wildfire smoke causes the worst air quality conditions that most British Columbians will ever encounter, resulting in symptoms that range from mild to severe. 

Common symptoms experienced from inhaling wildfire smoke described by the BCCDC include eye irritation, runny nose, coughing, sore throat, wheezing when breathing, phlegm production and headaches, all of which can be managed without the need to seek medical attention.

In contrast, those whose health is already compromised by chronic conditions like asthma or COPD, as well as conditions like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, may experience symptoms characterized as severe – in addition to unborn babies, pregnant people, infants, toddlers and elderly individuals.

Paolo Bigit Hurtado, a Kamloops resident who bikes to work, also recalls how bad conditions were in 2021. 

“At the time, I was biking to and from work every day and I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe and as if Kamloops’ hilly terrain was all of a sudden more challenging,” he says.

Even though Hurtado knew he should be wearing an N95 mask to protect his respiratory health, he often took it off when the effort of cycling made it harder to breathe. The days following riding without a mask caused a sore throat, he says.

Although he bikes to work because he genuinely loves the sport, he doesn’t have many more options to get to and from his job that don’t involve some sort of physical activity, he told The Wren.

He also believes there’s a gap in information when it comes to informing folks about health risks associated with poor air quality conditions, especially in terms of educating immigrant populations who may not be as accustomed to the do’s and don’ts of fire season. 

Hurtado himself immigrated to Kamloops from El Salvador in 2018 and says he’s never experienced anything like the conditions during wildfire season here.

When the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) health risk readings reached 10+, indicating that both sensitive populations and general populations should avoid strenuous activities, Hurtado says he remembers feeling disappointed that there wasn’t an emergency alert of some sort.

How can Kamloopsians protect themselves, prepare for poor air quality days ahead?

Purple Air, a real-time air quality map that uploads hyper-local data to a worldwide network, is one resource Mehta suggests folks use to better understand air quality conditions.

Mehta set up many of the Purple Air sensors located throughout the city of Kamloops himself to measure particle pollution (PM2.5) – fine particulate matter 2.5 millionth of a meter or less in size that, when inhaled and lodged in our lungs, can cause irritation and health complications.

A Purple Air monitor hangs on a balcony at Michael Mehta's home.
An air quality monitor folks can purchase through Purple Air hangs from Michael Mehta’s balcony. Monitors like Mehta’s provided air quality data that is uploaded to Purple Air’s real-time air quality map. Image courtesy of Michael Mehta.

Purple Air can help residents better understand air quality conditions by showing the differences in readings throughout a community. Depending on the location and speed at which a fire is growing, along with factors like wind direction, some areas in close proximity to one another may be more, or less compromised depending on topography, Mehta explains.

“The Ministry of Environment has only one air quality monitor that averages out [readings] for the entire city,” Mehta explains. “But, what I found over the past five, six years with this network, is that air quality is highly variable, depending on where you live.”

There are many micro-air sheds throughout Kamloops, Mehta explains. When viewed from a distance, it is possible to see where pollution is accumulating. For example, Mehta said the pulp mill has a concentration of air pollution over it. 

“That’s not shown by professional monitoring done by the ministry,” he says. “It’s all averaged out. So [Purple Air] shows you where air quality varies, where to go, what to do and how to protect yourself.”

After speaking with Mehta, The Wren contacted the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy to better understand why they aren’t currently relying on Purple Air.

Gavin King, a meteorologist with the ministry based here in Kamloops, explains while Purple Air is excellent in some capacities, the ministry can’t solely rely on the sensors because they simply aren’t reliable enough to inform the need for bulletins, advisories and regulations. 

“If we issue an advisory, there are requirements that must be met to issue it, and we have to stick to a standard to meet those requirements,” King explains. 

While the ministry does have a few Purple Air sensors of their own, most are set up by citizens, and there is no regulatory practice for the maintenance of the devices. This results in readings that are sometimes inaccurate and can be misinterpreted, King explains.

The image features a map folks can access online to get a better understanding of air quality in their community. The map uploads data from Purple Air monitors that have been placed at locations marked by dots on the map.
King illustrated this issue by showing The Wren an inaccurate Purple Air sensor located on Greenstone Drive, which has PM2.5 readings that suggest extremely poor air quality conditions, indicating the need to issue advisories. Image courtesy of Purple Air.
This map, like the one displayed above, gives folks the opportunity to better understand air quality in their community, but corrects for mistakes made by faulty Purple Air monitors.
In contrast, King pulled up a map that corrects for Purple Air inaccuracies developed at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). The map shows the same sensor on Greenstone Drive as grey, indicating that the sensor is broken, therefore making the data unreliable. Image courtesy of UNBC.

The devices the ministry uses to determine when bulletins, notices and advisories need to be posted are stored in air-conditioned shelters, have been rigorously tested and even have requirements for audits to determine if they are working correctly, King explains. 

“Some advantages of using the air quality monitors we use is the ability to zero them, clean them and calibrate them,” King says. “These kinds of instruments get dirty, are sometimes affected by humidity, temperature changes and all sorts of things. That’s why our monitors are kept in air-conditioned shelters, so that technicians can go there and change dirty filters and calibrate them.”

When asked for his professional opinion on using the Purple Air map to inform oneself, King suggested that folks continue to rely on governmental data for information on whether air quality readings are likely to impact your health. 

“That doesn’t mean that you can’t also use Purple Air,” he says. “While the numbers are sometimes skewed, it doesn’t really matter what those numbers are when we’re using them to compare conditions. We can see with our own eyes when looking at the map where conditions are bad, and can also easily determine where there might be discrepancies.” 

King also suggests that folks double-check information by using the UNBC map that corrects for Purple Air mistakes. Additionally, he says residents should continue to check the Kamloops Air Quality Health Index and reminds community members that they can subscribe to get air quality notifications through B.C.’s Air Quality Subscription Service. 

Additional steps Kamloopsians can take to protect their respiratory health

Mehta urges Kamloopsians to invest in some sort of HEPA filter to better protect ourselves and our families from PM2.5 particles. If purchasing a HEPA filter isn’t possible, he suggests you DIY one. 

“There are plenty of instructional videos on youtube that explain how to build a DIY air filter,” Mehta says. 

Dr. Brandon Yau, public health resident physician and medical health officer for Interior Health, also suggests a HEPA filter, but recognizes these may not be available to all. In those cases, he recommends residents seek out informal clean-air spaces when possible.

“These can include spaces like community centers, libraries, shopping malls and movie theatres if folks don’t have access to at-home air filters,” Yau says.

Mehta says, he also hopes to see people take steps to protect their respiratory health year-round. Kamloopsians should avoid smoking cigarettes, e-cigarettes and vapes, as well as avoid eating smoked meats and other barbequed foods too often, he says. He also urges folks to avoid sitting too close to bonfires for long periods of time.

“You definitely don’t want to use incense in your house, or those atomizers, deodorizers and dryer sheets, they all contribute to the lifelong accumulation of exposure,” he says.

It is also important for residents to talk with their health practitioner about what impacts poor air quality might have on them individually, King says.

“If people have concerns or are challenged by air quality, it’s always best to talk to a health practitioner who can give them more accurate information about how to respond,” he says. “It’s important for people to understand how their bodies respond to different concentrations of smoke. Air quality is very complicated and everyone is different. Pay attention when there’s smoke, if you don’t feel good, there’s probably a hint there.”

Editor’s Note July 26, 2023: This story was updated to clarify that N95 masks do not hinder oxygen consumption.

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