Wildfire situation brings fears for the future

Part of B.C. reported to have worst air quality in the world during this record season

I was always fascinated years ago when I lived in Toronto when I saw people walking around the downtown streets with surgical masks over their mouths and noses.

It should not have been surprising.

From a distance, downtown Toronto during the dog-days of summer was typically covered in a brown smog, mostly from all the industrial activities in that area, and the atmosphere there, and those breathing it, suffered as a result.

For the first time since then, I’ve seen people in the mostly rural and sparsely populated central Vancouver Island area wearing surgical masks to cope with the smoke from the hundreds of wildfires across the province that has been blowing our way.

It got so bad that areas of B.C. took the dubious honour of having the worst air quality in the world.

The smoke emanating from the fires was so massive that NASA says it can been seen from satellites 1.5 million kilometres away.

As well as the majority of B.C., the wildfires in this province prompted Environment Canada to issue air quality statements for much of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and northwestern Ontario, as well.

B.C. recently announced a state of emergency due to the fires, and firefighters from across the country and around the world have come to our aid to fight the unrelenting blazes.

The national weather agency warns that the smoky conditions may cause coughing, throat irritation, headaches or shortness of breath, specifically among children, seniors and those with cardiovascular or lung diseases.

I talked to a meteorologist with Environment Canada a couple of weeks ago and was told that new offshore winds from the Pacific Ocean would blow much of the smoke back east again and, in fact, did so that we could see clear skies again.

But when I asked if that would be the end of the smoke, I was told that with so many fires burning in the province and with no significant rain in the forecast, there was no way to know if or when the smoke would inundate us once again, and it may be even worse the next time.

“A lot depends on which way the wind blows,” I was told.

The most distressing and perplexing part of this whole situation is that many environmental scientists are stating that, because of the ongoing effects on global warming, the forest fires and the subsequent smoky skies could become the new normal for B.C. each summer from now on.

This summer is the worst for forest fires on record in B.C., blazing through more than 1.25 million hectares of land so far, and it’s unsettling that it could get even worse in future years.

It’s sad to think that B.C. may soon be in competition with the heavily populated and polluting China and India for the worst air quality in the world on a regular basis.

There’s been a lot of discussion over global warming in recent years, with many claiming it’s not even happening, but a quick look outside in this area these days might change a lot of the skeptics’ minds.

Our lifestyles have to change, or I fear that we will reap the consequences sooner than many think.

(Robert Barron is a reporter with the Cowichan Valley Citizen. He can be reached at robert.barron@cowichanvalleycitizen.com).