With wildfire smoke likely to become a more regular part of Canadians’ summers, major cities are starting to think about how to protect residents from the air’s ill effects, but most have yet to implement thorough measures.
Unlike sudden cold snaps or heat waves, the impact of smoke is not always immediate or obvious. Faced with what climate scientists say will be increasingly severe wildfire seasons in the future, cities are trying to determine how they can safeguard residents from the very air they breathe.
So far this year, Environment Canada has issued more than triple the average number of wildfire season air quality bulletins, prompting health officials to warn people about the dangers smoke poses to vulnerable individuals in the short term and, likely, everyone in the long term.
In Winnipeg, the city received funding last year from Health Canada to identify facilities that could be used as “clean air spaces” in the future. Those facilities would include buildings with high-quality air filters, backup generators in case of a power outage, air conditioning and amenities such as washrooms, changing tables and kitchens in case people have to stay for long periods. The buildings also need to be accessible by public transportation.
Mike Olczyk, Winnipeg’s emergency management co-ordinator, said the city assessed 60 possible sites, including recreation centres and libraries, and is now working to determine which upgrades are necessary and possible. In the new year, Mr. Olczyk said Winnipeg plans to run a drill to see what it would take to get a clean air space ready in the event that air quality suddenly worsens.
In Edmonton, the city created an extreme weather policy in 2019 primarily intended to address cold weather snaps, but the city’s director of affordable housing and homelessness, Christel Kjenner, said her department is now concerned about heat waves and smoke as well.
“We started to see that this wasn’t going to be a very infrequent occurrence any more.”
Ms. Kjenner said this summer is the first time the city has opened up all its facilities, such as recreation centres and pools, to people to use for as long as they want and at no cost to escape smoke. She said the city also started providing N95 masks to social services to distribute to vulnerable people during poor air quality days.
Ms. Kjenner said one key concern is for unhoused people, who are more likely than the housed population to have chronic health conditions and have fewer options for respite from smoke. Edmonton has 777 permanent shelter spaces, but around 1,300 unhoused people.
Shelter spaces are lacking in other cities too and not all buildings are equipped with high-quality air filters.
Another population of concern is elderly people, who are more vulnerable to the health risks of wildfire smoke, often live alone, and may face additional challenges in getting themselves to a public place with clean air. They are one of the demographics a team from the Pacific Institute on Pathogens, Pandemics and Society in British Columbia is targeting with its new DIY air filter building workshops.
Anne-Marie Nicol, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University, said she came up with the workshop idea after noting the lack of clear direction people have been given on how they can realistically stay safe from smoke. The homemade air filters only take around 15 to 20 minutes to construct and initial studies show they have similar capabilities to store-bought versions.
Dr. Nicol said her team has received funding from the City of Vancouver and the B.C. Lung Foundation, among others, to provide the workshop for free to hundreds of vulnerable residents. Buying the necessary materials would cost around $100, while a comparable store-bought air filter would likely be $250, Dr. Nicol said.
She said she’s hopeful their project will continue to grow and inspire others in Canada to do the same.
“There’s an urgency I’m starting to feel in the environmental health world that we really need to be finding solutions for people, not just bad news, but things that people can do.”
In Vancouver, the city implemented requirements for high-quality air filters in new buildings this summer and plans to come up with more long-term solutions in its 2024 Climate Adaptation Strategy.
Elsewhere in Canada, cities are still largely treating wildfire smoke as an individual’s problem. Aside from reminding residents what public places they can access for clean air, they are instructing people to stay indoors, install air filters and mask up if they have to go outside.