Heavy smoke from forest fires blanketed communities in the West Kootenays Friday, forcing flight cancellations and prompting health concerns.
A thick haze from forest fires around the province, and from the U.S., is responsible for the poor air quality.
In Castlegar, the Air Quality Health Index hit 10+ on Friday morning, or “Very High”.
According to the provincial air quality website, at a 10+ rating, people with health issues should “avoid strenuous activities outdoors. Children and the elderly should also avoid outdoor physical exertion”. For the general population, the site recommends people “Reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation”.
In Rossland, the local senior’s association is handing out free masks for people having a hard time coping with the smoke.
“We’ve handed out 22 of them so far, and I’ve just gone down to Trail to pick up the last box of them from Home Hardware,” says Rossland Seniors Association President Les Anderson. “We’re trying to keep them for the seniors and others who actually need them. They’re not that easy to get hold of.”
Anderson says this is the first time the Seniors Association has done something like this.
“But we’ve never had smoke this bad before,” he says. “I’ve had seniors tell me they’re coughing, their throats are burning. Older people can be more sensitive to the smoke than young people.”
The declining air quality has some people seeking medical help.
“We have seen a slight increase in visits to emergency rooms at Kootenay Lake Hospital in Nelson and Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital in Trail related to wildfire smoke,” said Mandy Lowery, Acute Health Services and Site Director at Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital.
There has been no significant change in the number of visits to the emergency room at Boundary Regional Hospital in Grand Forks.
Interior Health officials say it’s important that people take steps to seek cleaner air and reduce smoke exposure. Residents should be aware if they are at a higher risk, monitor their symptoms and follow the recommendations of the air quality health index.
More information on precautions to take in smoky conditions is available here.
The smoky skies are making it difficult for people trying to fly in or out of Castlegar. By noon, two Air Canada flights — one inbound from Calgary and the morning Vancouver flight — had been cancelled. There have been seven cancelled flights into the airport because of smoke since August 7, airport officials told the Castlegar News.
The Trail regional airport has had its operations affected as well. While there were no cancellations today, one flight was cancelled on Wednesday because of the smoke.
“It really depends on which way the wind is blowing,” said Al Doherty, an airport operations specialist in Trail. “It is by the hour, basically.”
The Castlegar airport is also the headquarters for local firefighting operations. A spokesperson for the Southeast Fire Centre couldn’t say if any flights have been affected by the smoke in the area, though they say visibility is a factor when their flight operations are being planned.