Wildfire Information | Northern Health

Wildfire Information

Wildfires and your Health

Using Face Masks During Wildfire Smoke Events

There are negative health effects associated with breathing smoky air. Wildfire smoke contains particulate matter and, when we breathe it into our lungs, it can cause health problems. Smoke is especially problematic for those with breathing, heart, and circulation illnesses (e.g. asthma, COPD, heart failure).

Healthy people can also be affected, particularly pregnant women, children, the elderly and outdoor workers. The fire does not have to be close for you to be affected. If the skies are smoky, you could be at risk.

Staying indoors where the air is cleaner, is the best protection

The best way to protect the health of yourself and your family during smoky sky events is to seek cleaner air. You can buy a HEPA air cleaner for a room in your home, you can go to a building with a good air filtration system, or you can leave the area. If this is not practical, it may help to simply stay indoors with the windows and doors closed, and to reduce your physical activity.

Limitations of face masks and particulate respirators (N95 Masks)

Particulate respirators (N95 masks) can stop some of the tiny particles found in wildfire smoke from getting into your lungs. However, these masks have important limitations because they:

  • may make it difficult to breathe normally, which can be risky for those with existing breathing or heart conditions,
  • do not fit children’s faces properly,
  • cannot be worn properly by people with facial hair, and
  • stop working if they get saturated with water or sweat.

Simple dust masks, surgical masks, and other masks made of paper or cloth do not provide protection against smoke.

For those who choose to wear a mask

If you need to be outside during a smoke event and want to wear a mask:

  • choose one labeled ‘N95’ and ‘particulate respirator’
  • follow the fit instructions: a tight seal around the mouth and nose is needed to protect your lungs against smoke
  • take regular breaks from wearing the mask so your body can recover from the increased breathing effort required
    • This increase breathing effort can outweigh the benefits for people with chronic heart or lung disease. If you feel more short of breath with the respirator on, do not use it
  • replace used and dirty masks regularly

Air Quality - reducing your exposure in smoky conditions

Wildfire smoke is a mixture of very small inhalable particles and gasses. The amount and the makeup of smoke can change from fire to fire and as the smoke gets older. 

The variability in the smoke can lead to a variety of health effects that range from nose, throat and eye irritation to more serious symptoms like difficulty breathing and worsening of heart and lung conditions like COPD or asthma. 

Those particularly at risk are unborn children, children, the elderly, and those with chronic illness. Effects can be made worse when combined with high temperatures.

What you and your family can do to reduce your risk:

  • Limit your exposure to wildfire smoke.
    • Stay indoors and keep the air clean.
    • Reduce the amount of time spent outdoors when air quality is poor.
    • Avoid rigorous outdoor activities if your breathing becomes difficult or uncomfortable.
    • When driving in a vehicle, keep windows closed with air conditioning set to recirculate.
    • N95 respirators are only effective for those who are familiar with their use and proper fit; simple dust masks are unlikely to provide any reduction in exposure to fine particles or gaseous pollutants.
  • Visit a clean air shelter or a location that has a large volume of air that is air conditioned and filters the air (such as shopping malls, swimming pools, public libraries, etc.).
  • People with asthma or other chronic illness should activate their asthma or personal care plans.
  • Some people may consider leaving the smoke filled area all together, however, conditions can vary dramatically by area and elevation.
  • Listen to your body - Visit HealthLinkBC, call 8-1-1 (non-emergency), see your doctor, or call 9-1-1 (emergency) if you’re experiencing symptoms such as difficulty in breathing, chest pain or discomfort, and sudden onset of cough or irritation of airways.
  • Be aware – visit bcairquality.ca for current air quality information (air quality may be poor even though smoke may not be visible).

Smoky conditions often happen during hot weather events, which means that it may also be important to stay cool:

  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Spend time in the coolest room in the home (e.g. basement).
  • Use an air conditioner or spend time at a location equipped with air conditioning and air filtration.
  • Take a cool bath or shower.

Maintaining good overall health is a good way to prevent health effects resulting from short-term exposure to air pollution.

Northern Health supports the Ministry of Environment (MoE) with air quality advisories and bulletins when certain air pollutants become a concern. MoE issues Smoky Skies Bulletins when smoke can be expected in a local airshed.

Unlike air quality advisories which are based on air concentrations measured at monitors, these Smoky Skies Bulletins are issued by a meteorologist who uses a number of different tools to determine that smoke is likely to enter a specified region. These bulletins can provide sooner warning to people that their health may be affected during the smoke event and may also be in affect longer than a typical advisory due to the unpredictable nature of wildfire smoke.

Northern Health, in conjunction with other agencies, will be monitoring smoke levels in communities close to fire activity. If situations arise where evacuation or relocation of high-risk individuals is required, NH will work to provide information to communities and partner agencies, and will assist with risk assessment and coordination of medical services.


Water Quality – ensuring your drinking water is safe for use

Water quality can be compromised by a variety of emergencies, including natural disasters like forest fire or flooding. Environmental Health Officers routinely inspect, sample and assess Community Water Systems in Northern BC. Water systems with high hazard ratings are generally put on a boil advisory until the source of contamination is found, or adequate treatment facilities are installed.

If you are concerned about impacts on a community water system following a natural disaster or other emergency situation, please refer to the following resources:

If you have your own water supply and have questions about potential impact on that supply, contact your local Environmental Health Officer.


Food Safety – safe food handling and preparation in emergency situations

Food safety is an important consideration in emergency situations such as a power outage, or following a period of evacuation from your home.

Food safety when evacuation orders are lifted:

Upon returning to your home following a period of evacuation, it is important to ensure any food left behind has not spoiled or been compromised by a power outage.

Check expiry dates on food left behind during a period of evacuation, to determine if they are still safe to eat.  If frozen foods have thawed, they may not be safe to eat and must be discarded. (Thawed and refrozen ice cream may be a good indicator that helps to determine whether the freezer has been off. Fish product that is malodorous on thawing is also a good sign.)

If in doubt throw it out. Do not take any chances with the safety of your food.

Food safety when the power is out:

If you are affected by a power outage, there are steps you can take to prevent food spoilage. Drinking water quality can also be compromised from power outages, contact your water supplier if you have questions.

When you lose power , if a generator powered refrigeration unit is available, transfer food to the unit. If a powered refrigeration unit is not available, leave food in the refrigerator or freezer and keep the door closed. 

Food safety when the power returns:

  • Ideally, fridge temperatures should remain at 4 degrees Celsius or below and foods in the freezer should remain frozen solid. 
  • A refrigerator can keep food cool for up to 12 hours and a freezer can keep food safe for days if it is kept closed.
  • If you don’t have a thermometer or if you don’t know how long your fridge was without power:
  • Check the products in the fridge for spoilage and souring.  Milk and other dairy products that have gone off/sour are good indicators that the fridge has been off and all food should be discarded.
  • If frozen foods have thawed, they may not be safe to eat and must be discarded.
  • Food in the freezer that has or may have reached 4C or higher should be discarded and must not re-frozen.
    • Thawed and refrozen ice cream may be a good indicator that helps to determine whether the freezer has been off. Fish product that is malodorous on thawing is also a good sign.
  • If there has been an extended power outage it may be necessary to contact your insurance provider. Make a list of items discarded and photograph these items if possible for insurance purposes.
  • Extra precautions should apply to ready to eat foods.
  • If in doubt throw it out. Do not take any chances with the safety of your food.