Fire smoke is like a "chemical soup," says fire researcher


VANCOUVER – Inhaling smoke from a fire could be tantamount to smoking a couple of cigarette packs a day, depending on its thickness, says a researcher who studies fires in western Canada.

Mike Flannigan, a professor in the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta, said that smoke is like a "chemical soup" that can be trapped in the lungs and cause various health problems.

"They are all kinds of particles, mercury, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane … there is a long list."

Depending on the size of the particles, they get stuck in the lungs, accumulate over time and cause "all sorts of problems," Flannigan said.

"The more we are finding out about smoke and health, the more we are finding out that it is bad for us, which is not a surprise, but it is worse than we thought."

Sarah Henderson, senior scientist for environmental health at the British Columbia Disease Control Center, said that the smaller the particles, the worse they are.

Both Flannigan and Henderson will make presentations at the BC Lung Association's annual workshop on air quality and health on Wednesday.

Its presentation is timely after extreme periods of forest fires in British Columbia in 2017 and 2018. Smoke from forest fires last year hit Atlantic Canada and even as far as Ireland.

Emissions vary depending on fuel differences, burning conditions and other environmental factors, Flannigan said.

The spread depends on how the columns of smoke and fire rise. The winds can carry the particles north to Europe and Asia, around the world and vice versa, Flannigan said.

"They can travel long distances for long periods of time."

Henderson said most people living in polluted places face a risk of chronic disease and life expectancy a little shorter, but that data comes from cities like New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Air quality in British Columbia is "extremely good," except for a few weeks during the forest fire season, she said.

"If we have a season like 2017 and 2018, year after year, over the next 20 years we will probably have an impact on the population's health, but we still do not know what it will be," Henderson said.

People should protect themselves from the smoke by spending time indoors, using air filters and not exercising energetically when they are out, she said.

In 2017, the area burned in B.C. was 12,000 square kilometers, which was a record until last summer, when 13,000 square kilometers of the province were consumed by fire. The B.C. government has declared a state of emergency for both seasons.

The intensity of forest fires, as shown by remote sensing, is also increasing, Flannigan said, noting that as fuel becomes drier, it is easier for fires to start and spread.

And the season of forest fires is also starting much earlier, he said.

In Alberta, the forest fire station used to start on April 1, but now begins on March 1 and lasts longer.

"In Canada our burned area has doubled since the 1970s. And my colleagues and I attribute this to – I can not be more clear – man-made climate change," he said. "Our climate is changing and this has affected the fire activity in Canada, the western United States and other parts of the world."

Over the past two years, more than four percent of the forested area has been burned in B.C. and the province is far from exhausting how much it can burn, Flannigan said.

Historically, he said, it would be unlikely that the province had seen a third season of bad fires.

"But it's entirely possible," he said.

Climate change is making the jet weaker, which is causing hot, dry summer days, which are conducive to the fire activity, he said.

"Are things going to get worse? Absolutely. Not every year. Some years will be colder, some years will be more humid, "Flannigan said.

"On average, we will see a lot more fire, and they will be longer, more intense, and the main reason climate change influences fire activity is that the hotter it gets, the more fire we see.


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