• Mathieu Powell

Victoria in Smoke from U.S. Wildfires

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

Victoria is a beautiful place to live in part because our air and water is clean… most of the time. That’s certainly not true while we deal with dreadful air quality for reasons outside of our control.

All along the US west coast, fire fighters are battling hundreds of forest fires through California, Oregon and Washington. Smoke from the burning coastline have released a choking blanket from Baja California to Vancouver Island.

If you step outside, you might see the outline of the sun, and a twilight-zone quality of diffused, orange tinged beauty, but the smell and throat/nose irritation will quickly send you back inside.

The B.C. Government has been issuing health alerts. They use an Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) as a scale to show the health risk associated with the air pollution we breathe. Over the weekend, Greater Victoria experienced a 10+ or “Very High” health risk (verses a rating of “1” which is the cleanest air quality). They are advising all Victorians, including children and the elderly, to avoid strenuous activities outdoors.

Thursday, September 17th update - AQHI is now 7. An improvement, but still very high.

Why are we dealing with so much smoke from the U.S.?

Many blame the changing climate and dryer weather, which is certainly a big factor. Another is forest management practices employed in both Canada and the U.S.

In the natural life course of a forest, fires are essential. Forest fires release and recycle valuable nutrients stored in trees. They open the forest canopy to sunlight and stimulate new growth. They reduce and create natural blocks to insect infestations. Lodgepole and jack pine need fire to reproduce because only intense heat stimulates their cones to open and release their seeds.

The US and Canadian protocol for suppressing natural forest fires in order to protect human habitation comes with unavoidable and growing risks to our forests.

In the U.S. Lodgepole Pine has been besieged by the Mountain Pine Beetle for decades. Wildfires once acted as a control mechanism to reduce beetle populations, but modern fire suppression efforts allowed Lodgepole Pine forests to reach an over-mature age class, making the older trees more susceptible to Mountain Pine Beetle attack. Combined with warmer weather have increased beetle populations and allowed them to spread northward. In the late 90’s B.C. saw a massive Mountain Pine Beetle infestation which killed millions of hectares of pine forest.

The practice of fire suppression leads to a growing pile of detritus - dead trees and branches to build up on the forest floor – which increases the potential for larger, more deadly fires.

Forest management practices are being reviewed and intelligent practices put into place, such as using proscribed burns at the leading edge of Mountain Pine Beetle invasions to stop their spread. To avoid simply reacting to the latest fire emergency, forest managers on both sides of the border will need to work together and adapt their practices.

Meanwhile, here at home, Armel Castellan with Environment Canada appeared on the air with CHEK. (Friday, September 11th). “We’re really in the worst part of the scale we can be in, so it is literally affecting everybody, including healthy adults. We’re recommending they don’t choose to recreate or exercise outside.”

The current conditions are expected to last well into Sunday and Monday. (OK, that prediction fell short. Now the expectation is another 48 hours or into another Saturday).

While this smoke persists, you are strongly encouraged to reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation.

For more information, go to BC Government’s website on air quality

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