Practical Smoke Preparedness Workshop in British Columbia

In May 2019, the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) hosted a Practical Smoke Preparedness Workshop in Prince George. The workshop was aimed at agencies involved in wildfire planning and management, including the Northern Health Authority, First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), municipalities, NGOs, and air quality roundtables. Wildfires are predicted to become more frequent and severe as the global climate changes. BC is highly susceptible to wildfire due to historic forest management practices colliding with hotter temperatures, increased drought, and windier summer conditions driven by climate change. One result of these wildfires is the diminished air quality from wildfire smoke, which has physical and mental health impacts for people and communities in BC, particularly for those with chronic health conditions (respiratory or other), the elderly, young children, and pregnant women. Protecting against the health and social impacts of wildfire smoke has become a key priority for many communities. As part of the workshop attendees were provided with a series of fact sheets that included information on the composition and health effects of wildfire smoke, as well as how to prepare for wildfire season, and how to use tools such as portable air cleaners to protect susceptible people. The workshop was part of a larger objective to promote coordination and collaboration amongst health authorities, municipalities, and NGOs in the face of disaster events such as wildfires.


Identifying Actions

Overall, the evidence reviews found that that there was a paucity of research that specifically evaluated the efficacy or effectiveness of interventions to reduce adverse health effects of wildfire smoke. However, this is an active area of research with new evidence becoming rapidly available. By combining existing and emerging evidence, BCCDC has been able to make general statements about effectiveness of interventions such as air cleaners and face masks. Public health practitioners can then use the evidence to support their own guidance at the regional or local level. These results were compiled and summarized in the “Guidance for BC Public Health Decision Makers During Smoke Events” which was published in September 2014 and several fact sheets that are updated every year. These documents describe the wildfire smoke hazard and identify the health effects that are associated with wildfire smoke exposure and the populations that are susceptible. They also provide BC-specific guidance about tools for situational awareness (smoke and health surveillance) and summarizes the evidence for effectiveness of intervention measures to protect public health. For example, they explore the use of cleaner air shelters as an adaptation measure to reduce exposure to particulate matter generated by wildfire smoke and provide temporary relief for community members during smoke events. Cleaner air shelters are areas, rooms, or buildings that reduce the indoor impacts of particulate matter generated by wildfire smoke. The objectives of cleaner are shelters are to limit outdoor air entering the indoor environment, avoid creating indoor air pollutants, and to filter indoor air.

Implementation

The international working group brought together experts tasked with assessing the evidence related to wildfire smoke and public health. The group originally identified nine key topic areas to be addressed by evidence reviews:
  • Exposure measures for wildfire smoke surveillance
  • Filtration in institutional settings during wildfire smoke events
  • Health surveillance for wildfire smoke events
  • Home and community clean air shelters to protect public health during wildfire smoke events
  • Reducing time outdoors during wildfire smoke events: advice to stay indoors, advice to reduce outdoor physical activity and cancelling outdoor events
  • Use of evacuation to protect public health during wildfire smoke events
  • Using masks to protect public health during wildfire smoke events
  • Wildfire smoke and public health risk
The BCCDC then used this evidence to create several fact sheets with information for the public about wildfire smoke and its health impacts, including information on how to prepare for wildfire season. Some of these factsheets have been translated into multiple languages spoken in BC including American Sign Language (ASL).
  • Understanding the health effects of wildfire smoke
  • How to prepare for wildfire smoke season
  • Use of portable air cleaners for wildfire smoke
  • The composition of wildfire smoke
  • Wildfire smoke and outdoor exercise
  • Wildfire smoke and Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)
  • Home-made box air fan filters
  • Face masks for wildfire smoke
  • Translated Content

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The BCCDC organized a Practical Wildfire Smoke Preparedness Workshop in Prince George on May 28th, 2019. There was a successful turnout from several agencies and organizations, including Northern Health and the FNHA. The factsheets developed by BCCDC were also distributed during the workshop and used to increase awareness and promote preparedness for wildfire smoke and the health impacts. This workshop was funded by a small amount of unspent budget at the end of the 2018-19 fiscal year. Although there was great value in this workshop, one challenge to providing these services is establishing a core budget for the work. Complementing this type of workshop has been the establishment of the BC Health and Smoke Exposure (HASE) Coordination Committee to support planning and response efforts related to public health impacts for significant wildfire smoke events. The group membership includes BCCDC, the BC Ministry of Health, regional health authorities, First Nations Health Authority, BC Emergency Health Services, BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, Metro Vancouver, BC Wildfire Service, Health Emergency Management BC, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and WorkSafe BC.

Next Steps

The HASE committee has a seasonal meeting schedule to maintain situational awareness, to review response capacity and to ensure provincial consistency in the wildfire smoke response. This schedule includes:
  • Meeting prior to wildfire season to review current guidance documents, share the wildfire season forecast and specific preparations required, and update the group membership list
  • Identifying situations for which new or updated guidance is required, and supporting the development of such
  • Establishing a pre-season communication plan that would roll out annually in conjunction with the province’s wildfire preparedness week to get the public thinking about the wildfire season ahead
  • Attending Health Emergency Management BC seasonal stakeholder meetings to ensure situational awareness
  • Scheduled teleconferences during periods of significant wildfire or wildfire smoke activity, or at the request of the Office of the Provincial Health Officer or the BC Ministry of Health
  • Meeting after wildfire season to review any recommendations for future planning or response

Resources