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Thick smoke from wildfires burning in the region fills the air and blocks out the sun just before 5 p.m in Vanderhoof, B.C., on Aug. 22, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In previous years, training meant kayaking through the waters of Nanaimo, B.C.'s Long Lake, speeding past magnificent Douglas-firs and waterfront homes, as the hot sun shone from clear blue skies. Locals, paddle-boarders and kids on summer break would mill about, a living postcard of a summer’s day.

But this past week, a thick blanket of wildfire smoke covered the usually bucolic scene, turning the morning sky a hazy, orange-grey. The teen athletes, members of the Nanaimo Canoe and Kayak Club, trained with face masks on, opting for the lightweight variety after discovering that a more heavy-duty half-face respirator made it difficult to breathe during their strenuous workout.

Related: Tiny First Nation in B.C. on front lines in battle against wildfires

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Opinion: B.C.'s approach to wildlife management needs major ethical reform

“The national championships start on Tuesday, so there’s no turning back,” said head coach Igor Nikitovic. “We put years into this, and this is the final stage of preparation. We put the masks on and try to get the best out of it. What can you do?”

Nanaimo Canoe and Kayak Club head coach Igor Nikitovic before a morning paddle at Long Lake in Nanaimo, B.C., on Aug. 23.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

The roughly 560 wildfires burning throughout British Columbia have triggered numerous air quality warnings, obscured the province’s mountain views and put children, the elderly and people with underlying respiratory issues at particular risk.

A string of outdoor events have been cancelled: theatre performances, triathlons, bike races. Summer camps have curtailed outdoor activities.

Sixty of the blazes currently burning are considered fires of note, which means they posed a threat to people and property or were highly visible. Most burned in the southeast part of the province.

Scientists warn that extreme weather conditions linked to climate change, such as intense heat waves and prolonged drought, have created tinder-dry conditions that are increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires around the world – which, in turn, is sending more smoke into the air.

“Wildfires are with us to stay,” said Sarah Henderson, a senior scientist with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) who has studied the population health effects of wildfire smoke for more than 15 years.

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“If we keep seeing seasons like this, the long-term exposure of Canadians to air pollution is going to increase significantly because of wildfire smoke."

Almost every region of British Columbia and large areas of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan are currently under air quality advisories because of wildfire smoke. Metro Vancouver, for example, issued an air quality advisory in late July and it has been in place almost every day since.

The regional district has recorded an increase in wildfire-related air quality advisory in recent years. In 2017, B.C.’s worst wildfire season on record, Metro Vancouver issued five advisories for a total of 19 days – the most recorded to date during the agency’s modern advisory program.

When James Lu worked as a medical health officer in Williams Lake during the early 1990s, wildfire smoke was barely a blip on the radar. Rather, officials focused on pollution from vehicle emissions and industry, such as the large conical structures called beehive burners used by sawmills to incinerate wood waste.

“Certainly, things have changed,” said Dr. Lu, who now works as a medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health.

Regional and federal programs – such as a Metro Vancouver permitting system for industrial emitters, and federal regulations for vehicles and engines – have successfully reduced many sources of air pollutants in the region.

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And an international comparison of air quality compiled by Environment and Climate Change Canada, measuring concentrations of fine particulate matter, ozone, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in national and international urban cities such as Toronto, Calgary, Hong Kong, Barcelona and Sydney, ranked Vancouver at or near the lowest levels for each of those indicators.

But wildfire smoke is a whole other beast over which we have little control, said Conor Reynolds, program manager for air quality climate change at Metro Vancouver.

“At least, certainly, it’s something that’s much more difficult to manage," he said. "We need to respond and prepare for it because, really, there aren’t many actions that we can take within our region to reduce that smoke.”

B.C. WILDFIRES AND AIR QUALITY

AS OF AUG. 22, 2018

WILDFIRES

Active wildfires

Hotspots, last 24 hours

DEASE LAKE

FORT ST. JOHN

PRINCE RUPERT

PRINCE GEORGE

WILLIAMS LAKE

Active fires

In hectares

KAMLOOPS

20,000

VANCOUVER

40,000

60,000

PARTICULATE MATTER CONCENTRATIONS,

24-HOUR AVERAGE

PM2.5*, micrograms per m3

25 to 50

50 to 100

100+

DEASE LAKE

FORT ST. JOHN

PRINCE RUPERT

PRINCE GEORGE

WILLIAMS LAKE

KAMLOOPS

VANCOUVER

*Particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less. 25 micrograms per m3 averaged over a 24-hour period is the provincial acceptable limit for PM2.5 concentrations.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: CANADIAN WILDLAND FIRE INFORMATION SYSTEM; THE MINISTRY OF ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE STRATEGY

B.C. WILDFIRES AND AIR QUALITY

AS OF AUG. 22, 2018

WILDFIRES

Active wildfires

Hotspots, last 24 hours

DEASE LAKE

FORT ST. JOHN

PRINCE RUPERT

PRINCE GEORGE

WILLIAMS LAKE

Active fires

KAMLOOPS

In hectares

VANCOUVER

20,000

40,000

60,000

PARTICULATE MATTER CONCENTRATIONS, 24-HOUR AVERAGE

PM2.5*, micrograms per m3

25 to 50

50 to 100

100+

DEASE LAKE

FORT ST. JOHN

PRINCE RUPERT

PRINCE GEORGE

WILLIAMS LAKE

KAMLOOPS

VANCOUVER

*Particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less. 25 micrograms per m3 averaged over a 24-hour period is the provincial acceptable limit for PM2.5 concentrations.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: CANADIAN WILDLAND FIRE INFORMATION SYSTEM; THE MINISTRY OF ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE STRATEGY

B.C. WILDFIRES AND AIR QUALITY AS OF AUG. 22, 2018

WILDFIRES

Active wildfires

Hotspots, last 24 hours

FORT NELSON

DEASE LAKE

FORT ST. JOHN

PRINCE RUPERT

PRINCE GEORGE

SANDSPIT

WILLIAMS LAKE

BELLA BELLA

Active fires

In hectares

KAMLOOPS

VANCOUVER

20,000

40,000

60,000

PARTICULATE MATTER CONCENTRATIONS, 24-HOUR AVERAGE

PM2.5*, micrograms per m3

25 to 50

50 to 100

100+

FORT NELSON

DEASE LAKE

FORT ST. JOHN

PRINCE RUPERT

PRINCE GEORGE

SANDSPIT

WILLIAMS LAKE

BELLA BELLA

KAMLOOPS

VANCOUVER

*Particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less. 25 micrograms per m3

averaged over a 24-hour period is the provincial acceptable limit for PM2.5 concentrations.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: CANADIAN WILDLAND FIRE INFORMATION SYSTEM; THE MINISTRY OF ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE STRATEGY

This summer alone, B.C. has seen smoke from Siberia, Alaska, California, Washington State and Oregon, as well as from its own fires burning throughout the province, said Julie Saxon, an air quality planner with Metro Vancouver. She added that it’s not unusual for the majority of wildfire smoke that affects air quality in the summer to come from outside of the region.

The health impacts of wildfire smoke are complex, and difficult to track. For the young athletes with the Nanaimo Canoe and Kayak Club, it meant irritated eyes and scratchy throats. They could taste the smoke in the air. One kayaker threw up. Other symptoms can include headaches, coughing and wheezing. But these symptoms rarely require a trip to the emergency department, which means they’re rarely logged.

People with more severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations, an asthma emergency or a COPD lung attack, are advised to seek prompt medical attention.

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Andrea Palmer, a spokeswoman for Northern Health in Prince George, said she has heard anecdotally that some general practitioners and primary care physicians in the region have reported upticks in visits.

Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry said that while smoke can increase the risk of infections, particularly pneumonia in older people and ear infections in children, the risk of long-term health effects are generally low.

“Despite the fact that it’s been going on for several weeks, we really do see this as a short-term exposure, compared to the day in, day out exposure that others have had [elsewhere] that have been associated with long-term effects,” Dr. Henry said.

“For the vast majority of people, when the skies clear, the symptoms of irritation and shortness of breath are going to go away and most of us will be absolutely fine.”

In the short-term, Dr. Lu and other medical professionals advise people to adjust outdoor activities according to how they are feeling during smoky wildfire seasons. People with respiratory issues can prepare in advance of the wildfire season by ensuring they have medications, such as inhalers, on hand.

“If you are in one of those categories of being higher risk, you might have to consider a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter that can remove those particles,” Dr. Lu said. "And if you have central air conditioning, you could look at using better filters.”

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If that’s not possible, Dr. Lu advised people to be aware of public spaces they can go to with cleaner and cooler air, such as shopping malls, community centres and libraries.

Prolonged exposure to air pollution over decades, meanwhile, is associated with increased disease incidence including cancer, and heart and respiratory disease. Longer wildfire seasons could override the gains made to control air pollution from vehicles and industry.

Dr. Henderson with the BCCDC said this underscores the importance of controlling indoor air quality.

“HEPA air filters are great and they can certainly be useful in one room of your home,” she said. “But probably the most important policy change we can consider is the building code, and ensuring that every indoor environment is constructed in such a way that smoke can be effectively kept out of that environment when these episodes occur,” she said.

On Friday, winds complicated the battle against other fires, including two with a combined area of more than 1,000 square kilometres southwest of Burns Lake and along the south shore of Francois Lake. Officials said no new homes have been lost since the fire burned down three in Lower Post near the Yukon boundary and a trace amount of rain had fallen. Crews were working to keep flames away from the Alaska Highway.

Environment Canada offered some hope to residents of Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, but the forecast was not as positive for those closer to fires in the Interior region. Fine particulates were expected to decline across the Lower Mainland and a smog advisory has been dropped for that area. Forecasters said cooler temperatures and fresh air moving toward the coast caused the reprieve, but winds over the Interior will pin the smoke there and residents living downwind of fires will continue to get smoke for the foreseeable future.

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With files from the Canadian Press

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