Wildfires affect air quality, impacting schools on Vancouver Island

As the heat of the summer extends into October there has been a prolonged forest fire season. As of Oct. 18, the province has 201 active fires with six having started in the previous two days.

Though two of the four fires in the Port Alberni area are no longer burning, four in Strathcona, and four between Gold River and Zeballos remain.

Tarek Ayache, air quality meteorologist with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, said that the smoke across Vancouver Island is largely due to the forest fires burning south of the border.

“This year is really unusual. We've had this prolonged dry weather that has prolonged the wildfire season as well,” said Ayache. “There's still fires that are intensely burning, mainly south of the border, but also in the province.”

BC Wildfire Services tweeted on Oct. 17, “Smoke from 26 active fires in the Fraser Zone, combined with smoke from Washington State, has negatively impacted air quality and visibility throughout most of the Coastal Fire Centre, particularly in the Fraser Valley.”

“So at this point [afternoon of Oct.17], the smoke is starting to clear. And we expect the gradual clearing today and into tomorrow. But maybe expect a few lingering impacts at the southern tip of the island well into the middle of the week,” said Ayache.

A Smokey Skies Bulletin writes that people with pre-existing health conditions, respiratory infections, older adults, pregnant women, infants, children and sensitive individuals are more likely to be impacted by the smoke.

A fire along Herber River, close to Gold River, started on Sept. 6 and was caused by lightning. In the four days leading up to Oct. 18 the fire grew from 352 hectares to 358 hectares and continues to remain in the status of ‘out of control’. The Coastal Fire Centre said there is a crew of 10 on the fire for the next five to six days. They will then reassess the situation.

Another fire, at Oktwanch River, ignited on Sept. 1 and remained at 41 hectares in the last 4 days.

Sharon Parsey, administrative assistant at Gold River Secondary, says that the school is managing the smoke by closing doors, windows, and intake vents so that it doesn’t enter the building.

“It comes and goes. Some days are fine. Other days are quite smoky,” said Parsey. “We just have to make sure that things are closed up or otherwise the school does fill up with the smell of smoke.”

Marsha Maquinna, Nuu-chah-nulth education worker at Ray Watkins Elementary School in Gold River, said that the current situation has been quite a concern, and they’ve been reassuring students that they are safe.

Students with asthma have been impacted by the smoke. Maquinna said depending on how severe their asthma is, some students have remained at home in their effort to stay indoors to avoid the smoke.

The school had to cancel their Terry Fox run numerous times because of the smoke, but were able to complete the event on a day in mid-October when the smoke lifted.

“We're hoping for rain soon,” said Maquinna. “It looks like it's gonna be coming on Friday.”

Ayache said that by the end of the week it is expected that there will be a major change in the weather bringing rain and wind, which will help to clear the smoke.

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At over 10 hectares, the Heather Lake blaze in E.C. Manning Park is one of B.C.’s largest active wildfires, contributing to compromised air quality in other parts of the province. (B.C. Wildfire Service photo)

Alexandra Mehl, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Ha-Shilth-Sa