Wildfire smoke, air quality and your health
Learn about wildfire smoke events, the effects of wildfire smoke on your health, and how to protect yourself.
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About wildfire smoke events
Smoke from wildfires in forests and grasslands can be a major source of air pollution for Canadians.
Communities across Canada regularly experience wildfire smoke events. This is expected to continue as Canada is warming much faster than the rest of the world, providing ideal conditions for more frequent and longer wildfires. Wildfire season typically runs from early April to late October. As wildfires burn through forests and grasslands, they produce dense smoke.
It is difficult to predict:
- when fires will occur
- how big they will be
- how much smoke they will generate
- what direction the smoke will travel
Wildfire smoke may be carried hundreds or thousands of kilometres from the fire zone. This means smoke from other parts of the world can impact communities in Canada.
To help Canadians be better prepared, wildfire smoke forecast maps are available through the Government of Canada’s FireWork system. FireWork is an air quality prediction system that indicates how smoke from wildfires is expected to move across North America over the next 72 hours.
Air quality health index and wildfire smoke
The air quality health index (AQHI) tells you about:
- the health risks from local air pollution
- how to protect your health
How the AQHI is calculated
The AQHI is calculated using the concentrations of 3 air pollutants that are harmful to health:
- nitrogen dioxide
- fine particulate matter (PM2.5)
These pollutants are considered the best indicators of the health risks associated with the mix of outdoor air pollutants in Canadian communities.
The AQHI is presented on a scale of 1 to 10+ with 4 health risk categories:
- 1 to 3 = ‘low’ health risk
- 4 to 6 = ‘moderate’ health risk
- 7 to 10 = ‘high’ health risk
- Above 10 = ‘very high’ health risk
During smoky conditions the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations can override the health risks of the combined 3 pollutants. The AQHI is then calculated and reported hourly using only the PM2.5 to help people in Canada better respond to wildfire smoke events. During these events, a rapid change in the AQHI’s forecast values will occur and a special air quality advisory may be issued. These values can be followed:
- on the AQHI page
- on the WeatherCan app, including with personal notifications when the AQHI number changes
- on the Weather Alerts page
- online by most provincial and territorial governments
Once the smoke moves away from the area, the AQHI will be calculated using the 3 pollutants and become more stable.
AQHI 10+ during wildfire smoke events
In Canada, an AQHI value of 10+ is typically due to very high levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from wildfire smoke.
An AQHI of 10+ indicates a very high health risk due to air pollution and/or wildfire smoke. When the AQHI reaches 10+, air pollution and health risks may continue to increase but the AQHI will not increase any further. This is the highest health risk category on the AQHI scale. When the air is polluted enough to cause an AQHI of 10+, everyone’s health is at risk and it is important to:
- take precautions to protect your health
- follow the advice of local health officials
Symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure
Who is most at risk of the effects of wildfire smoke
Some people are at higher risk of health problems when exposed to wildfire smoke.This includes:
- pregnant people
- people who smoke
- infants and young children
- people who work outdoors
- people involved in strenuous outdoor exercise
- people with an existing illness or chronic health conditions, such as:
- lung or heart conditions
During heavy smoke conditions, everyone is at risk regardless of their age or health.
Milder and more common symptoms of smoke exposure include:
- a mild cough
- production of phlegm
- sore and watery eyes
- nose, throat and sinus irritation
You can typically manage these symptoms without medical intervention.
More serious but less common symptoms of smoke exposure include:
- chest pains
- severe cough
- shortness of breath
- wheezing (including asthma attacks)
- heart palpitations (irregular heart beat)
If you have any of these symptoms, talk to a health care provider or seek urgent medical attention.
Less commonly, exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to:
- heart attack
- premature death
If you think you are having a medical emergency, dial 9-1-1 and seek immediate medical care.
Preparing for wildfire smoke events
Wildfire smoke contains many pollutants that can cause serious health effects.
Close windows and doors
And use quality air filters to clean indoor air.
Stay informed about wildfire smoke, air quality and your health:
Download the WeatherCAN app or visit us online
You can do many things to prepare yourself and your home for wildfire smoke events.
Checklist for wildfire smoke season preparedness
- Are you or your family at risk for wildfire smoke health effects?
- Do you have an adequate supply of medications?
- Do you have an adequate supply of food and water?
- Have you replaced or cleaned your air filters in your ventilation system or portable air purifier?
- Do you know where you can go to take a break from the smoke?
- Do you know where to find information about local air quality conditions?
- Do you know the emergency number for your local health authority?
If you, or members of your family, are in 1 or more of the at-risk groups and are in a region where wildfire smoke affects air quality, be prepared by:
- speaking with a doctor or health care provider about developing a management plan for wildfire smoke events
- maintaining a supply of necessary medications at home and always carrying these medications with you during wildfire season. Work with your health care provider to create a plan on what to do in case your medications are unable to stabilize your condition.
Protecting your indoor air
It’s important that the air you breathe inside your home is clean, especially if you have to stay inside due to wildfire events. You can prepare your home by finding ways to keep the wildfire smoke out and to keep indoor air clean.
Keep wildfire smoke out
Prevent wildfire smoke from entering your home by:
- properly sealing windows and doors, and keeping them closed when the temperature is comfortable
- installing the best quality air filter that your ventilation system can handle based on manufacturers’ recommendations
- ensuring you have at least one functioning carbon monoxide alarm in your home
Keep indoor air clean and safe
Protect the air in your home by:
- using a certified portable air purifier to filter particles from wildfire smoke
- There are many models available. Learn more about choosing a portable air cleaner that’s appropriate for your needs.
- ensuring you have at least one functioning carbon monoxide alarm in your home
- having air conditioning and humidification/dehumidification capabilities present (maintain humidity levels between 30 and 50%)
- reducing sources of indoor air pollution
To find more information on protecting your indoor air when your outdoor air is poor, visit:
Protecting your health from wildfire smoke
The best way to protect your health is to reduce your exposure to wildfire smoke.
Use care when spending time outdoors during a wildfire smoke event
Check local air quality conditions to determine whether it’s safe to be outdoors. Pay attention to:
- the air quality health index (AQHI)
- special air quality statements
- other indicators of smoke levels in your community
Limit outdoor activities and strenuous physical activities as much as possible. It is important to listen to your body and reduce or stop activities if you are experiencing symptoms.
Make sure the air in your home is clean
Stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed. If it is too warm, turn on the air conditioning if possible. If you do not have air conditioning and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed, seek out local cooling or clean air space.
Use a portable air purifier in a room where you spend a lot of time. This can help decrease the fine particles from wildfire smoke in that room.
Limit the use of exhaust fans when you’re not cooking.
If you can’t maintain cool, clean air inside your home during a wildfire smoke event, be aware of locations in your community where you can find clean air and take a break from the smoke.
Safe places that typically have air conditioning and filtered air include:
- shopping malls
- community centres
- cleaner air shelters
Contact your local health or emergency authorities to find the most up-to-date information about publicly accessible locations.
Take care of your mental health
It’s not unusual to feel anxious, stressed out, sad or isolated during a smoke event. Eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising indoors and staying in contact with friends can help. Anyone who is having trouble coping with symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression should seek help from a health care provider. Remember, a wildfire smoke event may last a long time, but it will eventually end. Sharing positive outlooks and attitudes will help you get through it.
You can access free mental health supports here:
- Wellness Together Canada
- PocketWell app
- Kids Help Phone
- Hope for Wellness Helpline for Indigenous Peoples
- Taking care of your mental health
Other tips to protect your health during wildfire smoke events
If you must spend time outdoors, a well-fitted respirator type mask (such as a NIOSH certified N95 or equivalent respirator) that does not allow air to pass through small openings between the mask and face, can help reduce your exposure to the fine particles in smoke. These fine particles generally pose the greatest risk to health. However, respirators do not reduce exposure to the gases in wildfire smoke. It is important to listen to your body and reduce or stop activities if you are experiencing symptoms.
If smoke is present for more than a few days, stay active when you can. Try finding a place with clean air to exercise indoors, for instance at the gym, the community centre or at home.
If you need to work outdoors, check with your provincial or territorial occupational health and safety organization or your local health authority. They can provide guidance on how to work safely outdoors during wildfire smoke events.
Have a plan for limiting exposure to wildfire smoke if you will be caring for children or participating in any outdoor events.
Wildfire smoke events and extreme heat can happen at the same time. During these times, if you can’t spend time in cooler and cleaner air, try these 3 protective measures:
- Drink lots of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
- Limit exercise and exertion that makes you sweat or breathe hard.
- Stay out of the sun, take cool showers, spray yourself with a water bottle, or wear an article of damp clothing to cool your body.
You can reduce the impacts of wildfire smoke on your health if you know when wildfire smoke is expected to affect your community.
Evacuate, if necessary: If your community is threatened by an approaching wildfire, your local health or emergency authorities will provide direction. Be prepared to evacuate at any time. If told to evacuate, do so immediately.
What to do in a wildfire emergency provides information on what you can do before, during and after a wildfire.
Stay safe in your vehicle: Keep vehicle windows closed and set the ventilation system to recirculate. Make sure you change your cabin air filters regularly. Consult this link for more information:
If a fire occurs close to your water well, use an alternate source of water, such as bottled water, until you can have your well water tested. Don’t use contaminated water for any purpose, including:
- making ice
- giving to pets
- washing dishes
- brushing your teeth
- washing your hands
- making baby formula
Care for others: Check in on others who are in your care or live nearby who may be more vulnerable to wildfire smoke. Frequently check in on neighbours, friends and older family members, especially those who are chronically ill.
Resources for public health authorities and local jurisdictions
Advice, guidance and resources for public health authorities and local jurisdictions:
- Wildfires in Canada: Toolkit for Public Health Authorities
- Guidance for Cleaner Air Spaces during Wildfire Smoke Events
Download, print and share the Wildfire Smoke 101 factsheet series:
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