By August of each year the city and the surrounding countryside where I live becomes ‘scary’ dry. Summer months often mean no rain for weeks on end; there are often water restrictions, yellow dead grass covers front lawns and seagull guano paints the downtown sidewalks white. If you were to go for a summer walk in the forests near my city during this time of year, you would be able to stand still and listen to the bark peeling and popping off of the arbutus trees. You’d be able to then watch the bark, along with drought-yellowed leaves, slowly float down on currents of hot air and settle onto the crunchy, tinder-dry forest floor. Sadly in my part of the world that is Western Canada, going months without any precipitation and the ensuing forest fires has become the new norm.
To illustrate to you, dear reader, how dry it has been out west I’ll mention a few fire related items that have recently made the news;
- To the south California battles major, deadly forest fires each year; most recently the devastating November 2018 Camp Fire around Paradise California (about 7 hrs drive south from home) and there’s a smoke plume is set to impact Western Canada this week
- By October of this year (2018) there were 2,068 forest fires reported in British Columbia, and now 2018 has the unwanted record of being the worst year for fires in recorded history
- Dramatic footage of a September 2018 fire tornado in British Columbia that sucked up a fire fighter’s hose and a rock that was thrown in to it has made the rounds on social media
- To the east, the city of Fort McMurray, Alberta was devastated by fire in May of 2016
For the past four years or so I’ve watched and listened to news reports of homes, livelihoods and precious lives that have been lost to forest fires. What I thought would be a once in a decade tragedy seems sadly to have become a seasonal, somewhat catastrophic event. Whatever the reason for the increase in forest fires, we here in Western North America find ourselves living in the middle of the perfect storm – and we have to learn how to adapt.
Despite the city that I live in being removed from any immediate danger posed by forest fires, each summer for the past 3 years smoke has silently billowed into the city and stayed around for days as swaths of forests and land burn around us. The smoke quietly seeps into town, colouring and scenting the air we breathe while the sun turns into a strange orange-red orb that hangs in the murky sky all day. With burning eyes and throats we try to pretend like it’s a normal event, scanning the news, praying for rain and trying to help by attending fundraisers around town.
Hearing the harrowing stories of loss and survival while abruptly losing the sun behind clouds of smoke for days and weeks on end can really get you down. The days instantly became darker and cooler due to the lack of sunshine. Normal outdoor summer activities were curtailed. Everyone was cooped up indoors – and it does have an effect on your psyche – it’s a real thing. This summer I found out it actually has a name; solastalgia.
Instead of mangling the definition, I’d like to share a link to an article where the author eloquently describes solastalgia. I also found a quick 14 minute podcast about the word. And I think that this 3 minute video showing a reporter covering the fires in B.C. demonstrates the effects of solastalgia very well.
Besides coping with the psychological challenges of a rapidly changing environment, I’m a person with LAM. So I thought I’d share with you some things that helped me make this year’s air pollution and fire season a bit more comfortable. I’ve broken them down into five headings below.
Caveat: I’m not qualified to give medical advice so the resources and information I share here are based on my personal experience with forest fire smoke only.
Get the Facts
- you don’t necessarily have to smell the smoke or something bad in the air for it to do damage to your lungs; particulate in the air can be odourless and invisible to the human eye and still hurt you
- know what’s in the air you’re breathing by paying attention to the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) rating and what it means. I found out more about the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) here
Below are some screen shots I took on my phone during some of the worst AQHI days (10+) that I experienced in my hometown during August of this year.
For more information about forest fires, air pollution and AQHI ratings I found the following resources online:
- Canadian Resources on Forest Fires, AQHI and Fire Smoke
- United States of America’s AirNow resource
- A Global Map showing current air pollution with the reason for the project outlined here
The way I understood it from the radio and news reports this summer is that those with heart and lung conditions should take heed when they hear a special weather advisory/warning about poor air quality (a high AQHI rating). Everyone should listen to reliable local radio, TV or internet sources for information on local air quality advisories.
Protecting yourself can mean different things depending on whether you’re inside or outside. Because I have compromised lung function and there was an air quality advisory in my town, I did the following when it was in effect;
- Kept the windows and doors closed in our home
- It was summer so it was hot inside too – I stayed hydrated & ran a fan to circulate the indoor air and also had a HEPA air filter to clean the air in our bedroom
- I didn’t drive with the windows down- I turned on the AC and didn’t circulate the outside, polluted air into our car
- Indoor public spaces can be a safe place – I also found relief in indoor public spaces like shopping malls with air conditioning and a HVAC system
- What I learned about HEPA filters
- HEPA = High Efficiency Particulate Air filter
- The HEPA air filter we have in our apartment bedroom helped clean the air of fine particulate matter that the forest fires were releasing into the air. It really helped me sleep well while the windows were closed…
- Get a HEPA unit that can properly cycle the air for the size of room that you intend to use it in. There are many different makes & models that are good but a desk top unit is not going to properly filter the air in your master bedroom or giant living room. (We have a Honeywell HPA164C True HEPA Allergen Remover in the bedroom because we’re in that room for 8+ hrs every night)
- HEPA air filters do not last forever; and the air filter system will only work as it should if you change the HEPA filters as per the manufacturer’s instructions. It does cost you some $$ – but it’s worth the investment. To the right is a pic of a new and used HEPA filter from our bedroom unit; this is after ~8 months of use running the unit for about 10 hours/day on average & 24 hours/day during the forest fire days this summer. Guess which one was the used one? Yuck! It might be worth regularly replacing home furnace filters too…
- Here’s a good website from the Canadian government about indoor air quality that also includes links to USA & Queensland government documents on air quality at the bottom of the webpage
- What I learned about HEPA filters
- I limited my time outside so that I wasn’t exposed to particulate matter in the air for too long & I didn’t exercise or do any strenuous activity outside
- To wear or to not wear a mask? Some experts advise against using a mask as people don’t often wear them properly which renders them useless and others find wearing a mask limits their ability to breathe deeply. For me this summer when the smoke covered our city, the air felt thick – so I said hell yes to the mask while scurrying to and from work. Note that if you’re going to use a mask use an appropriately rated NIOSH mask (you can find them at hardware stores like Home Hardware or Home Depot). And if you’re going to wear one – follow the manufacturers instructions and wear it properly for crying out loud!
- What I learned about NIOSH masks
- NIOSH = National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
- NIOSH rated masks have different numbers which indicate what type and size of particulate they are able to filter and for how long.
- I understand that all masks including NIOSH rated ones have a limited filtering capacity (usually 4 hours or so for a mask, longer for a respirator)
- The mask must fit on your face and around your head properly to work and different types of pollution require different masks or respirators (particulate is different from toxic gas or vapours)
- For more info about masks and respirators during forest fires I found this useful but dryly worded document titled ‘Non-occupational Uses of Respiratory Protection‘ & an EPA pdf titled ‘Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials’ that I’ve linked to here.
- What I learned about NIOSH masks
Be Good to Yourself
When the AQHI in our city hit 7 and then went up to a 10+ I decided to protect myself by limiting my exposure to the polluted air outside and stayed inside near our HEPA air filter – what I thought would be one day ended up being 3 days. At first, I felt like I was at ‘loose ends’, but soon found an indoor routine. Here’s what worked for me;
- Consider the time that you’re indoors as an opportunity to focus on taking care of your health and as a gift to yourself
- Keep your mind focused and positive, don’t use the time worrying; I tackled small, easy jobs where I didn’t have to exert myself too much. Journal those anxieties out and onto the paper. Clean up your email inbox finally. Organize your digital photos. Have a spa day at home 🙂
- Netflix is fine for a while but I promise you’ll feel better physically and mentally if you stay somewhat active indoors too. If you can, do some gentle yoga stretches, play with your pet or put on some music and dust the nightstands and lamp in your bedroom, it’ll keep your spirits up
Even if it doesn’t look apocalyptic outside and smell like smoke, you may find yourself indoors in order to stay healthy or because you are recovering your health. Either way, remind yourself that you’ve made the decision to make yourself the priority – and that you’re worth it.
Help Others (survivors of forest fires)
After the smoke blows out of town the air becomes easy to breathe and the sky turns blue again. It’s easy to forget just how bad it all was.
But forest fires devastate world-wide and have long lasting consequences for the planet and for may people. Please contact local news agencies and governments to find out how to help. Below are two links to articles that list multiple organizations and resources that can and are helping those affected by forest fires in Canada and the United States of America…
Hang in There
Due to the rapid pace of climate change and the challenges those changes present, sometimes it can be hard to stay positive – whether we’re healthy or have some sort of health challenge. I hope that this post will help someone who may be looking for some workable solutions for dealing with forest fires or perhaps my post will confirm what you already know. 2018 for me so far has been an environmentally challenging year- and I think that it has been the same for others.
If you have any other solutions for protecting your health during a forest fire or high AQHI days please share by leaving a comment below.