Healthy Living in the North

Dealing with the smoke: protecting ourselves and our families

Most of us take clean air for granted. That is…. until the sky turns gray with smoke or we wake up to an eerie Armageddon-like morning while the sun hides behind a thick layer of cloud. At those times, we quickly start to think about how we can best protect ourselves and our families from the smoke.  I have young children, one of which has asthma, so this has been foremost on my mind over the last couple of smoky weeks.

Smoky sky landscape

August 17th, 9:30 AM Armageddon morning from my office.

Because I work in air quality at Northern Health, I have access to some great and easy to follow advice (and you can find it on the NH website too). Here are some strategies that my family and I have been following to keep us healthy during these smoky days:

Check on medication:
Since my son has asthma, the first thing I did was to make sure that his asthma management plan was up to date, that his regular medication was filled, and that we had enough rescue medication on hand to be able to manage his condition. I have been helping him to understand and follow his asthma management plan and keeping tabs on whether or not it is working. He knows when and how to use his rescue medication and we have talked about when we would go to the doctor for additional support.

Stay indoors:
While everyone reacts differently to wildfire smoke, it is important to listen to your body and reduce outdoor strenuous activity during very smoky conditions. Healthy individuals can still go outside and be active during less smoky periods, but for those with chronic conditions, the recommendation is to stay away from rigorous outdoor activity altogether when there is smoke in the air. Because of this, we have been keeping the kids indoors and keeping them occupied with various indoor activities. This has included activities like building with Lego, beading, and edible slime-making, and (for the safety of my breakables and all of our sanity) also more active activities, like going to the pool and our local civic centre. Public facilities, like community halls, malls, libraries, and pools often have better filtration systems and can offer a nice reprieve from being stuck in your home.

Children doing indoor activities.

Making beads inside with the air purifier and smoky skies as backdrop. Photo credit: Franny Steele.

Child at pool

Pool time fun during smoky days. Photo credit: Franny Steele

Keep inside air clean:
Of course, when staying indoors, it’s important to try to keep the indoor air clean. We try to open windows and doors only when needed. I also have two HEPA air purifiers running in the house. One of these is set up in my asthmatic son’s room so that he has a “clean” place to sleep at night. The other is in our common room where we spend most of our time. HEPA air purifiers are recommended over electrostatic precipitators (which can produce ozone) for those with respiratory conditions and the research (and my own experience) tells me that they really work!

It’s a good bet that this won’t be our last smoky summer, so even if you don’t have access to an air purifier this year, my recommendation would be to keep an eye open for deals on air purifiers for next summer season. I bought ours on sale for less than $50 each and they have been well worth it!

Stay put:
After posting multiple “Armageddon-like” photos on my Facebook page, I had calls from family located in other parts of the province, asking if we needed a place to evacuate to. At first I was surprised to learn that the public health advice for smoky conditions is not to evacuate, but it made sense once I understood the reasoning. One reason is that smoky conditions can change very rapidly. It is very possible that by the time we left our smoky hometown and drove elsewhere, the winds would have shifted and cleared our hometown air while socking in our new location. Smoke can travel for very long distances. With the number of fires burning in BC right now, we would need to travel quite far to find a place that couldn’t be impacted with a change in wind direction. I recently flew from Vancouver to Prince George and we were flying above smoky skies the entire way! Of course, evacuating is also stressful (especially with young children) and can be costly. On a regional scale, community wide evacuations for smoke can take important resources away from those whose safety is directly threatened by the wildfire.

Smoky sky comparison photos

Smoke conditions change rapidly! This photo is taking four hours apart from the same location. While still smoky, the smoke cleared up significantly between 9:30 am to 1:30 pm.

Don’t bother with masks:
Unless you’re required to as part of your work or have been advised by a physician, don’t bother wearing masks. Surgical masks (the thin white ones you can buy at a drug or hardware store) offer little protection from the fine smoke particulates. The ones that do (called N95 masks) are quite bulky, are harder to breathe through, need to be fit tested, can’t be fit tested on people with facial hair, and don’t fit children. The best line of defense is to seek cleaner air! Thank goodness, since I think asking the kids to wear masks would not have gone over well with them.

Don’t panic:
While very smoky days can be freaky, especially when you or your loved one has a chronic condition, I feel better knowing that most effects will go away quickly when the smoke clears. In a month from now when we are rummaging through our closets to find our winter gear, this will likely be a far off memory.

Barb Oke

About Barb Oke

Barb is a healthy community environments lead for Northern Health. Her passion is her family, and most of what she does to stay active and healthy centers around activities such as biking, hiking, walking, skiing, swimming and boating, where the whole family can be involved.


Small actions, big change (and a chance to win a bike!)

using a moisture meter

Barb’s son learning to use a moisture meter to check the moisture in firewood.

Small actions can lead to large change… that’s what I’ve learned since working in air quality. We all know that industry has a big role to play when it comes to cleaning up our air, but I think we often forget how important the individual’s role (yes, that means you and me) is as well. The impacts of wood burning, vehicle emissions and road dust in most northern airsheds are a lot bigger than most people expect (just look at the pie chart for Prince George).  It’s easiest to point the finger at the stacks, right? I get it! I know how tempting it is to drive through the Timmy’s drive-through on the way to work on a cold morning and I secretly cringed inside too when we talk about gathering winter firewood in the spring so that it can season for the summer (WHAT?… you want me to think about winter right now?).

Until working for the different airshed roundtables in our region, I never realized how important these individual decisions and actions can be for the overall betterment of our air. Every time we choose to car pool, bike, walk or stop idling; every time we teach our kids about the importance of preserving the natural environment; every time we ensure that we are not burning wet wood in old wood stoves; every time we minimize road dust by avoiding gravelled shoulders in the spring…. EVERY time we make these small decisions, we are helping to make our airshed cleaner. Without these individual decisions, our air quality concerns are not going to go away, no matter what industry does.

Prince George airshed

Impacts of wood burning, vehicle emissions and road dust in Prince George.lean

Given what I’ve learned, my family and I have taken steps to help improve our air. We carpool as much as possible, we try to plan our “running around” trips to minimize commuting time, we try to bike and walk when possible, we try to teach our kids the joys of being active and connected to our environment, we use a moisture meter to test the moisture content in the wood we burn, we use an EPA certified wood stove to heat our home and we don’t idle. We’re not perfect by any means, but we try to follow the advice I’ve heard tossed around at community airshed management discussions:  “reasonable people doing reasonable things.”  I think that is something that everyone can do… even you!

And now to get to the exciting part: how can this lead to winning a $1000 bike? To promote individual action and awareness, one community roundtable in our region, PGAIR, has put on two contests as part of Clean Air day, June 5 (unfortunately entries are limited to residents of Prince George).  The first contest is a poster contest for elementary school-aged kids. It is meant to get kids thinking about our air quality and individual actions that can be taken. The second contest will recognize a Clean Air Champion in the Prince George community: someone that has taken it upon themselves to take steps (be it small or large) to improve our airshed. The chosen Clean Air Champion will receive a $1000 bike!!! Visit PGAIR’s Clean Air day page for more information.

If you’re in Prince George, make sure to check out the contest details and nominate someone you know! For those outside of Prince George (and those in Prince George as well), let’s start to think about air quality in our everyday lives. You never know what contests might pop up… and in the meantime, you can are helping to make some real improvements in the air we breathe!

Barb Oke

About Barb Oke

Barb is a healthy community environments lead for Northern Health. Her passion is her family, and most of what she does to stay active and healthy centers around activities such as biking, hiking, walking, skiing, swimming and boating, where the whole family can be involved.