Wildfire Smoke and Health

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The frequency and intensity of Canadian wildfires is increasing as a consequence of the changing global climate, as well as long-standing forest management practices (Flannigan et al., 2013). Fires pose a direct threat to lives and properties in some communities, and also cause episodes of extreme smoke pollution that threaten the health of populations over large geographic areas.

  • Wildfire smoke is a complex blend of gasses and particles, including heavy metals; smoke exposure has been associated with a wide range of acute health effects, from increased reporting of respiratory and cardiac symptoms through to increased risk of mortality (Finlay et al., 2012).
  • The most recent estimate of premature deaths worldwide due to wildfire smoke was 339,000 annually over the period of 1997 to 2006 (Johnston et al., 2012).
  • Some populations are more susceptible to these effects, including: those suffering from respiratory or cardiovascular disease; pregnant women; infants and young children; the elderly; and those of low socioeconomic status (Reid et al., 2016Liu, 2015).
  • A report published by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers (CCFM) found that the number of fires occurring at the wildland-urban interface is increasing and the damages are likely compounded due to climate change (Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, 2013).

The resources assembled here are intended to assist public health practitioners, decision-makers, and the public by providing guidance regarding public health impacts, community preparedness, risk communication and response to wildfires and wildfire smoke.

NCCEH Resources

Selected External Resources

Mitigating Wildfire and Smoke Risks

  • FireSmart Canada (Partners in Protection, 2018)
    This webpage is an essential resource for communities and citizens wishing to make their communities FireSmart. Resources include manuals, articles, online courses, and in-person workshops across Canada. In addition to the original FireSmart manual (Protecting Your Community from Wildfire, 2003), the website offers a wide variety of shorter, more specialized resources, many of which are aimed at citizen engagement. Many resources are available in both official languages.
  • FireSmart guidebook for community protection (Government of Alberta, 2013)
    This streamlined FireSmart guide provides essential background information, templates, and tools to help communities understand and characterize local wildfire risk, based on topography, fuel types, and other factors. The guide also shows how to develop an effective mitigation strategy, with measurable endpoints, and a response plan. The guide describes a number of mitigation activities, include public education, vegetation management, and integrating FireSmart principles into municipal by-laws and land-use planning. 

Preparedness and Response Planning

  • BC Health wildfire smoke response coordination guidelines  (BC Centre for Disease Control, 2017)
    The purpose of this advisory document is to describe the powers and legislation that can be applied by decision-makers when taking measures, including evacuation, to minimize the public health impacts of wildfire smoke. It describes the activation, coordination and response to wildfire smoke, and the process for assessing outcomes and making recommendations to protect public health interventions.
  • Guidance for BC public health decision makers during wildfire smoke events (BC Centre for Disease Control, 2014)
    This advisory document provides public health decision makers with current evidence and BC-specific guidance for the assessment of, preparation, and possible interventions for a wildfire smoke event.
  • Wildfire smoke: a guide for public health officials (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2019)
    This guide is designed to help public health officials prepare for smoke events, take measures to protect the public, and communicate with the public about wildfire smoke and health.
  • Forest fires: a clinician primer (Nsoh et al., 2016)
    This article succinctly reviews populations most at risk during fire events, tools for situational awareness (e.g., smoke forecasting and environmental monitoring), and steps that can be taken to protect patients.

Occupational health: protecting outdoor workers and wildland firefighters

Data and Tools to Support Public Health Interventions

  • FireSmoke Canada (2019)
    This webpage provides services and data on air quality and health & safety for emergency management professionals, researchers, and the public by using the BlueSky Canada forecasting system to report hourly concentrations of smoke particles (PM 2.5) from wildfires up to 48hrs in advance.
  • BC Air Quality website (2019)
    This webpage gives information about air pollution, how BC measures and monitors air quality, and gives tools to access air quality advisories, air quality data, and the Air Quality health Index.
  • Portable air cleaners should be at the forefront of the public health response to landscape fire smoke (Barn et al., 2016)
    This evidence review assesses the usage of portable air cleaners and the level to which the information provided by public health authorities corresponds with recommended usage, advocating for their use in response to smoke from wildfires.
  • Evidence review: Home and community clean air shelters to protect public health during wildfire smoke events (BC Centre for Disease Control, 2014)
    This evidence review outlines the state of knowledge on the use of portable air cleaners, larger scale air conditioning and considerations for the implementation of community and home clean air shelters.
  • Evidence Review: Using masks to protect public health during wildfire smoke events (BC Centre for Disease Control, 2014)
    This evidence review clarifies types of respiratory protection that can be used by the public, what air toxins they can protect against, and addresses the effectiveness and efficacy of these devices. When communicating with the public, this recently updated factsheet on how to use a mask properly can be printed or distributed electronically.
  • Developing an online tool for identifying at-risk populations to wildfire smoke hazards (Vaidyanathan et al., 2018)
    This article outlines the efforts of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop an online tool that uses short-term predictions and forecasts of smoke concentrations and integrates them with measures of population-level vulnerability for identifying at-risk populations to wildfire smoke hazards. The tool is meant to strengthen situational awareness and expedite future response and recovery efforts.
  • Health benefits and costs of filtration interventions that reduce indoor exposure to PM2.5 during wildfires (Fisk and Chan 2017)
    This article modelled the expected health benefits achieved by reducing indoor PM2.5 exposures over a 10-day wildfire smoke event. Although specific to a given event, the paper provides useful considerations for decision makers considering similar interventions in their own jurisdictions.

Communicating with the Public

Lessons Learned

  • Addressing the new normal: 21st century disaster management in British Columbia (BC Flood and Wildfire Review, 2018)
    This report examines and assesses government response to the flood and wildfire events of the 2017 season. The review incorporates consultations with individuals, Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, as well as organizations and other stakeholders to gain a wide cross-section of perspectives from those affected.
  • September 2017 Kenow fire – Post incident assessment – Common themes analysis (Government of Alberta, 2018)
    This report identifies and addresses common themes experienced by stakeholders from the 2017 Kenow fire. The recommendations are meant to assist in improving Alberta’s emergency management system and strengthen relationships between the Government of Alberta and other actors when reacting to these types of complex incidents in the future.
  • May 2016 Wood Buffalo wildfire post-incident assessment report (KPMG, 2017)
    This report highlights successful practices and lessons learn by the province of Alberta and its partners regarding the preparedness for and response to the Wood Buffalo fires.
  • The Last Stand: Evacuating a Hospital in the Middle of a Wildfire (ASPR TRACIE, 2018)
    This report provides a first-hand account of the evacuation of Kaiser Hospital, in Santa Rosa, California, during the 2017 wildfire season. The interviewees provide valuable insight into the complexity of such an evacuation, and how it differed from prior emergency response scenarios.

Indigenous and Remote Communities

Returning Home after a Disaster

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Omission of a resource does not preclude it from having value.

Last updated Aug 21, 2019