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A man wearing a face mask walks as smoke from wildfires in neighbouring Washington state shrouds Vancouver's skyline at Stanley Park in Vancouver, on Sept. 14, 2020.

JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

Smoke from American wildfires turned British Columbia skies a leaden grey and blanketed Vancouver with an acrid burning smell and some of the worst-quality air in the world, causing Canada Post to suspend deliveries in some parts of the province on Monday from unsafe conditions.

The Greater Victoria Teachers' Association called for schools in the district to close until air quality improved and the BC Teachers' Federation advised its members to take a sick day if the smoke made them feel ill, noting the respiratory stress comes on top of concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus.

“We need to be especially careful with respiratory symptoms because of COVID-19,” the federation said in a message posted to Twitter.

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Public schools, however, remained open. (Schools in New Westminster, where a large fire engulfed the city’s Pier Park late Sunday, closed because of smoke from that fire.)

Smoke from distant fires in U.S. pose ‘very high risk’ for air quality in B.C.

Most of B.C. now warned of smoky skies and lower air quality from U.S. wildfires

The smoke from wildfires in Washington State, Oregon and California moved into the Metro Vancouver region early Friday morning, with readings on the air-quality health index quickly surpassing 10, signalling a “very high” health risk.

That reading held steady through Monday; IQAir, which tracks air quality in major cities around the world in real-time, has had Vancouver rallying with Portland, Ore., for worst air quality in the world.

B.C. AIR QUALITY

PARTICULATE MATTER CONCENTRATIONS,

24-HOUR AVERAGE

PM2.5*, micrograms per m3,

as of Sept. 15, 10 a.m. (PT)

Below 25

25 to 50

50 to 100

100+

B.C.

FORT ST. JOHN

PRINCE RUPERT

PRINCE GEORGE

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: GOVERNMENT OF B.C.

B.C. AIR QUALITY

PARTICULATE MATTER CONCENTRATIONS, 24-HOUR AVERAGE

PM2.5*, micrograms per m3, as of Sept. 15, 10 a.m. (PT)

Below 25

25 to 50

50 to 100

100+

B.C.

FORT ST. JOHN

PRINCE RUPERT

PRINCE GEORGE

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: GOVERNMENT OF B.C.

B.C. AIR QUALITY

PARTICULATE MATTER CONCENTRATIONS, 24-HOUR AVERAGE

PM2.5*, micrograms per m3, as of Sept. 15, 10 a.m. (PT)

Below 25

25 to 50

50 to 100

100+

B.C.

FORT ST. JOHN

PRINCE RUPERT

PRINCE GEORGE

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: GOVERNMENT OF B.C.

Carmen Hartt, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said climate change has brought more extreme weather conditions. The plumes of smoke hanging over Vancouver this past weekend have already put the city at the second smokiest it has been in the past 20 years, based on hours of smoke. The city had recorded more than 60 hours of smoke by Monday; the worst on record was the summer of 2018, with 99 hours.

“It’s a visibility measurement, but you can tie that to the health impacts,” Ms. Hartt said Monday. “This also seems to be more acute, because from Friday until now, there has not been a break.”

Ms. Hartt said longer stretches of severe weather, caused by the changing climate, have been apparent in U.S. states such as Washington, Oregon and California.

“Certainly, they have seen that in the western U.S., where these big fires are originating,” she said. "They’ve seen longer droughts, but also longer periods of rain.

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“We will definitely see more of these smoke events in years to come.”

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Monday that people who are very young, elderly and women who are pregnant can be particularly affected by smoky conditions, along with those with underlying conditions such as lung disease, asthma and diabetes.

Dr. Bonnie Henry is urging residents to get familiar with how signs of smoke exposure can be both similar and also distinct from symptoms of COVID-19. The Canadian Press

She advised people to avoid outdoor exercise until the skies cleared, and said mask wearing can help filter out some of the airborne particulates that can irritate the nose, throat and lungs.

Asked about school settings amid both wildfire smoke and the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Henry said it is “perfectly safe for people to be in the school, but we don’t want the windows open. We want to reduce the amount of smoke that’s coming in, and that’s something different from what we’ve been saying, where we want to increase ventilation if windows are available because it reduces the risk of COVID."

Dr. Henry said schools have other measures in place for COVID-19, such as HEPA air filters in some classrooms.

B.C. Premier John Horgan said, as of Monday, the province had 40 B.C. wildfire firefighters assisting in Washington State, just south of Grand Forks, with more than 400 others ready to deploy to Washington and Oregon over the next 10 days.

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“I raise this because over 800 volunteers put their hands up to run into someone else’s community, someone else’s fire, to do what they can to make sure that people are safe, and that is just extraordinary in my mind,” he said.

The flames up and down the western U.S. have destroyed neighbourhoods, leaving nothing but charred rubble and burned-out cars, and forced tens of thousands to flee. At least 35 people have died.

With a report from the Associated Press

Doctor says the wildfire pollution can leave people more susceptible to viruses, like the flu and COVID-19. The Associated Press

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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