Smoke-filled air envelopes southern B.C., as provincial wildfires turn deadly

A heavy blanket of stagnant grey haze has settled over British Columbia’s south coast as winds push smoke south from the many forest fires burning across the province.

VANCOUVER — A heavy blanket of stagnant grey haze has settled over British Columbia’s south coast as winds push smoke south from the many forest fires burning across the province.

Air quality advisories have been issued across southern Vancouver Island, along the mainland coast, Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.

Roger Quan, director of air quality for Metro Vancouver, said conditions worsened Monday as the smell of smoke permeated some parts of the region.

“This is more widespread than anything we’ve seen in the past,” he said.

“The wind is blowing smoke from, we believe, the Sunshine Coast and the Sea-to-Sky area. There are three large fires in that area and that seems to be impacting us most heavily. But there are also fires in the B.C. Interior so we’re receiving smoke from both ends.”

People with heart or lung problems or medical conditions such as diabetes, as well as the elderly and the very young, are urged to remain indoors and limit strenuous activity.

Chris Carlsten, associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, said inhalation of particulate matter from smoke can have a delayed effect over several hours or days.

He said asthmatics may become increasingly dependent on inhalers or end up in emergency departments, as could people who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Carlsten, who also works in the School of Population and Public Health at UBC, said the heat and the smoke from the wildfires are a problematic combination, especially for people with breathing problems.

“The heat will make us breathe more heavily as we try to cool our bodies. That will lead to deeper inhalation of particulate matter.”

He said the pattern of high temperature and fires are a sure sign of climate change.

“Metro Vancouver has some of the best air quality in the world for an urban setting. When events like this happen we’re reminded that that can be reversed very quickly.”

Thousands of people have been forced from their homes or must be ready to go on a moment’s notice as fires burn across the province.

On Sunday, a 61-year-old logger from Gibson’s B.C., died while helping forestry crews battle a wildfire near Sechelt, north of Vancouver, prompting an investigation by the coroners service and WorkSafeBC.

Last week, the B.C. government took the unusual step of imposing a provincewide ban on open burning as an unrelenting heat wave that began in early June sends temperatures soaring to record highs.

Forests Minister Steve Thomson said Monday that resources are being stretched as several jurisdictions across Canada and neighbouring Washington state deal with wildfires.

“We have a very, very challenging situation around the province, as everybody knows — an early start to the season, 27 new fires yesterday,” he said, adding 866 fires are currently burning.

Thomson said 40 of the fires were human caused and that people must be vigilant in ensuring they do their part to prevent such blazes.

He said the province has so far spent $80 million on the firefighting effort.

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