Air Quality and Forest Fires

The two that cause the greatest risk to human health in North America, and the two main ingredients in smog, are ground-level ozone and airborne particles.

Air quality is measured with the Air Quality Index (AQI).  It works similar to a thermometer but shows changes in the amount of pollution in the air instead of the temperature.  The AQI tracks 5 major pollutants:

  • Ground level ozone;
  • Carbon monoxide;
  • Sulfur dioxide;
  • Nitrogen dioxide; and
  • Airborne particles, or aerosols.

The two that cause the greatest risk to human health in North America, and the two main ingredients in smog, are ground level ozone and airborne particles.   

In Canada the Air Quality Index runs from 1-10+ with 1-3 being considered low risk and 7-10 being high risk.  Anything above 10 is considered very high risk. 


Wildfires have a significant impact on air quality, visibility and human health (BC Government).  An average of 74,000 acres are lost due to wildfires in just BC every year.  Smoke from wildfires can spread globally and emissions can linger in the atmosphere for weeks, or even months, and can affect the health and well-being of thousands of people.  Asthma attacks, strokes, and heart attacks are three examples of the severity of illnesses that particle pollution can trigger.  Coughing, trouble breathing, bronchitis, colds, and other respiratory illnesses are more common examples of the effects of bad air quality.  Trips to the doctor and hospital visits also increase and can be expected to occur during times of increased particle pollution.  Long term issues include increased inflammation, a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.  These issues can make your body more susceptible to respiratory pathogens such as COVID-19, and increase the risk of respiratory disease.  Carbon monoxide poisoning can also occur during these times and can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and sometimes death.


Wikipedia image 

To protect yourself from increased particle pollution you can:

  • Stay indoors. If you live close to a fire you may choose to stay indoors to avoid breathing smoke, ashes and other pollutants unless local authorities tell you to evacuate. Always listen to your local authorities and follow their counsel.
  • Wear a mask. Ordinary dust masks will not help in this situation but masks with an N-95 filter or N-100 filter can.  Keep in mind that these are difficult for people with lung disease to use and you must ensure that the mask fits properly for it to do any good.  These masks may also be hard to find for a variety of reasons, including during our current pandemic. Consult with your doctor if you have lung disease before you wear a mask. 
  • Take precautions for kids (especially infants) and other at risk individuals. Remember that masks should not be used on children because they are not likely to fit properly. 
  • Roll up car windows. When in smoky areas keep your windows up and vents closed.  Ensure your car is set on the recirculate setting, including when you are using AC. 
  • Protect your home.  Stay inside as much as possible while ensuring that doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut.  Use AC on the recirculation setting.  Air cleaning devices that have HEPA filters can help provide protection.  Placing damp towels unders doors and other places that polluted air may get in will help keep the air inside your home clean.  
  • Do not exercise outside.  Exercise increases our breathing rate and exercising outdoors during times of high pollution can increase our risk.  
  • Prepare to be evacuated. Always listen to local authorities and follow their instructions.
  • Check air quality advisories in your area to stay informed of current conditions. 

To read how the smoke from the California forest fires can affect your health click here

The American  Lung Association has this to say about wildfires and our health.

What are other tips we could talk about? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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