My normal beat is the weather, and these seasonal outbreaks of smoky air might seem only indirectly related. However, the two can be very interdependent and feed off each other in ways that produce disastrous results. Individual plumes of smoke from isolated sources are not considered meteorologically important. However, they become significant and even dangerous weather events in conditions like we’ve had these past two summers, when large volumes of smoke are generated and spread out over large areas without dissipating.
The smoke generated by large wildfires is affected by the weather, especially when it is carried long distances by the wind to areas far away from the fire activity. The smoke, in turn, can affect the weather. Smoky skies during the summer can cause the daytime temperature to drop about seven degrees Celsius. The worst effects of this weather obviously occur when the smoke subsides to ground level and poses a threat to human health. Many outside activities have to be curtailed, especially those that involve heavy breathing. Unfortunately, surgical and other similar face masks don’t offer full protection against the fine particles commonly found in smoke.
As noted by other commentators, it seems summer air pollution across Vancouver Island is getting worse over time. The wildfires we see at this time of year are becoming more common and widespread as our summers become longer, warmer, and dryer. Even worse, we also have air quality problems at other times of the year for other reasons. During the late fall to early spring period, homes with old oil furnaces and old woodstoves are a significant source of air pollution. There are still quite a few homes in my neighbourhood that belch heavy smoke during the cooler months of the year. Then there’s that perennial source of air pollution that is with us year-round: vehicles with idling engines cued up at stop-controlled intersections on some of our main roads and highways.
North Cowichan has taken a progressive approach to this problem by installing low-pollution roundabouts on its main municipal roads. This contrasts with the traffic lights associated with high pollution that are favoured by the provincial government and the City of Duncan, both of which control most of the roads and highways just outside North Cowichan. Even within the municipality, Highway 1 is a significant source of air pollution because of the provincial government’s ongoing preoccupation with stoplights that are deemed to be more ‘cost effective’ than roundabouts on the smaller roads, or interchanges on the main highway.
Can this problem be fixed? In theory, yes it can. However, in practice, it will be very difficult to achieve. It will probably require a massive public protest against governments that have influenced our destinies since the Reagan-Thatcher revolution of the 1980s. Since then, massive wealth has been transferred from governments in the public sector to corporations in the private sector, whose only obligations are to line the pockets of their owners, managers and shareholders.
This has left our governments with insufficient revenues to do what’s in the public interest. We, the public, got lured into supporting this private sector takeover by promises of lower taxes. Of course, we weren’t told about the massive cuts in spending on social programs, infrastructure, and environmental protection that would be the price of this revolution. Nor did we stop to consider these lower taxes would benefit corporations far more than the general public. Now that it’s happened and the damage has been done, most people seem resigned to the inevitability of it all.
Apart from our neo-conservative governments, some special interest groups have deceived many of us with the idea that high-polluting arterial highways are somehow more environmentally friendly and more compatible with our lifestyles than highways with interchanges. Wrong! In fact, freeways generate far less pollution than arterial roads because they have no mandatory stops. It’s true an interchange takes up a bit more land than a stop-controlled intersection, but the real estate saved by not building overpasses at busy intersections has been used for adding more strip malls, not parkland! High efficiency highways are also claimed by some advocates of the status quo to be ‘bad for business.’ Wrong again! No low-polluting freeway will ever prevent travelers from supporting the businesses they like, and no high-polluting arterial highway will encourage them to support businesses they have no interest in.
As for the other air pollution issues, the prognosis isn’t great there, either. We all know man-made forest fires can be reduced by acting more carefully in the woods, but not all fires are man-made. Lightning strikes from dry thunderstorms are also major culprits, and we have little or no control over that. Additionally, there is controversy over how best to fight the fires: with big planes like the Martin Mars that carry the most water, or smaller more nimble aircraft that can use smaller bodies of water that might be closer to the fires. Do we try to water bomb around the clock, or only during daylight hours when it’s safest to do so?
We also know domestic air pollution can be reduced by abandoning outdated home heating technologies. Unlike the highway pollution problem, there is little government can do here except to continue offering the cash incentives they already do to homeowners to modernize their home heating. If the problem continues to get more serious, maybe our governments can legally ban the use of high-polluting home heating methods. Natural gas and modern woodstoves are about the cleanest ways to heat our buildings, and that’s what we all should probably be using.
I share the belief we should put the final blame for these fire and dirty air fiascos on those whose policies and practices have promoted global warming. High polluting activities have been a major cause of climate change, which seem to be the cause of escalating droughts and hot spells, and appear to have caused the wildfires that have, in turn, caused much of the current air pollution, along with inefficient transportation and all the rest. The culprits, therefore, are governments, industry, and to the limited extent we can control anything ourselves, the general public. Are we well organized and focused enough to take on governments and special interest groups who, knowingly or unknowingly, promote high polluting activities and infrastructure? We’re all to blame for this in varying degrees, and we all have to work together to fix it or get poisoned by our own pollution.
(Chris Carss is a Chemainus resident and a longtime weather observer/recorder).