Wind and rain this weekend should mean an end to the smoky skies lingering over Powell River and much of BC’s south coast since the beginning of the August.
BC air quality meteorologist Earle Plain said the ridge of high pressure trapping smoke over the south coast is expected to shift eastward and allow cleaner marine air from the south to move in this weekend.
The weather pattern change will also bring some rain to the coast and an eventual return to blue skies, said Plain.
“We'll get a combination of some wind with that movement and some precipitation either late Saturday or Sunday,” said Plain.
Since the beginning of August, a high-pressure system has been drawing forest-fire smoke from the interior of BC down to the coast through Bute and other coastal inlets and trapping it over the Georgia Strait basin. Satellite images show the smoke completely covering Vancouver Island and the south coast.
Smoky conditions led health officials to issue warnings about the poor air quality. Coastal communities such as Powell River have taken the brunt of the smoke, said Plain.
With an average annual air pollution level of about three micrograms per cubic foot of air, Powell River saw that rate increase to about 10 times normal due to the smoky skies.
Heath warnings on August 4 for Powell River from BC Ministry of Environment and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) stated that smoke exposure was a concern for infants, the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes and lung or heart disease.
The warnings included recommendations that people experiencing symptoms take measures to reduce exposure and seek medical assistance, if necessary.
Powell River resident Joseph McLean has been monitoring the local air quality readings on his Fire Watch Powell River social media page.
"You never really appreciate how fresh Powell River's air is until it's gone,” said McLean. “We're not at a state where we're seeing critical health warnings, but it's something that if it's an optional activity it just seems like common sense to put it off a little while.”
McLean said Powell River’s air has been categorized as unhealthy for sensitive people.
A VCH spokesperson said Powell River General Hospital’s emergency room has not seen a large spike in visits from people with respiratory problems during the smoky conditions, but patients with ongoing illnesses have been advised to visit their family doctors if they feel the effects of smoke exposure.
Powell River general practitioner Chris Morwood said most people he has spoken with have not been “overly troubled” with the smoke, but many of his patients have been reducing their time outdoors, especially those who engage in strenuous activity.
“Some of my patients with chronic lung problems, however, have noticed a worsening of their symptoms and are staying indoors as much as possible,” said Morwood.
Morwood said long-term smoke exposure is associated with a variety of health problems, including heart and lung disease and lung cancer. In the short-term though, the smoky air is not just associated with breathing problems, but with heart attacks and even premature death, he added.
Morwood said a study in Comox Valley found a measurable increase in the number of heart attacks as air quality worsened in the winter due to residents burning wood to heat their homes.
“I'll be reducing my strenuous activity during the local air quality advisory,” said Morwood, “and hoping for the winds to change.”