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what you should know about wildfires and tips to prepare for them
What You Should Know About Wildfires and Tips to Prepare for Them
what you should know about wildfires and tips to prepare for them

What You Should Know About Wildfires and Tips to Prepare for Them

British Columbia is often referred to as “Beautiful British Columbia”, and there’s a good reason for it: the province’s stunning landscapes, diverse ecosystems and abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities make it the perfect place for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and travellers alike. But amidst all this lies one of the region’s most significant natural phenomena: wildfires. 

What is a wildfire?

Wildfires, also known as forest fires or bushfires, are uncontrolled fires that occur in forests, grasslands or other wildland areas. They can vary in size and intensity, from small, localized blazes to large-scale infernos that consume thousands of hectares of land. Wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems and can have many beneficial effects, such as clearing out dead vegetation, recycling nutrients into the soil, and promoting new growth from seeds and roots. However, they also pose a significant risk to human life, property and the surrounding environment. 

What causes wildfires?

Wildfires can be sparked by a variety of natural and human-caused factors. Lightning strikes are a common natural ignition source, particularly during dry thunderstorms when there is little rain. Human activities, such as campfires, discarded cigarettes and improper equipment use are also major contributors to wildfires, especially during periods of hot, dry weather when vegetation (grass, weeds, etc.) is highly flammable. Arson, the illegal and deliberate setting of fires, is another form of a human-caused wildfire. 

Impact on health and safety

Each year, British Columbia experiences hundreds (and sometimes even thousands) of wildfires. In 2023, a total of 2,293 wildfires burned through 2,840,104 hectares, costing the government $1,094.8 million in damages. Of the 2,293 wildfires, 609 of them (26%) were caused by humans, while 1,638 (71%) were caused by lightning. 

The smoke produced by these wildfires contains a complex mixture of harmful pollutants, including large amounts of fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxide. These pollutants can cause and exacerbate respiratory problems, such as asthma and bronchitis, and increase the risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular conditions. 

In addition to the direct health impacts of smoke, wildfires can also inconvenience us in numerous ways. Roadblocks can disrupt travel plans, cause delays for commuters, and lead to restrictions on outdoor activities. Power outages may occur due to damaged infrastructure or shutdowns to prevent electrical sparks. In extreme cases, they can threaten homes and communities, leading to evacuations, property damage, and, in some cases, loss of life. 

How to prepare for a wildfire

It’s very unlikely that you’ll ever be caught in a wildfire, but the smoke that is produced by the fire can be just as harmful as the fire itself. In fact, Health Canada states that there is simply no safe level of smoke exposure

So, how can you prepare for wildfire smoke?

  1. Stay informed about local air quality reports and wildfire updates.
  2. When smoke is present, stay indoors with windows and doors closed to reduce exposure. 
  3. Use air purifiers with HEPA filters to improve indoor air quality. 
  4. Avoid activities, especially strenuous exercises, which can increase your inhalation of smoke particles. 
  5. Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water to help your body cope with any respiratory irritation caused by the smoke. 
  6. If you must go outside, wear an N95 mask to filter out fine particles from the smoke. 

To prepare for a wildfire in your area, you can take the following steps:

  1. Start by creating a defensible space around yourself by clearing away vegetation and combustible materials. Turn off gas and propane valves, close windows and doors, and leave lights on to increase visibility for firefighters. 
  2. Have an evacuation plan in place that includes multiple escape routes and a designated meeting point for your family and friends. 
  3. Pack an emergency kit with essentials, such as water, non-perishable food, medications, important documents and first-aid supplies. 
  4. Stay informed about wildfire updates and evacuation orders through local news and emergency alerts. If evacuation is ordered, leave immediately and follow instructions from authorities. 
  5. Always prioritize the safety of yourself and your loved ones during a wildfire. 

Preventing and mitigating wildfires

While wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems, there are steps that individuals, communities and governments can take to prevent and mitigate their occurrence and impact. For example, we can implement measures to reduce the risk of human-caused wildfires. Earlier, we saw that 26% of wildfires were caused by humans. By implementing fire bans, restrictions on outdoor burning and public education campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of fire safety, the number of human-caused wildfires can decrease significantly. 

Land management practices, such as prescribed burning and fuel reduction treatments can also help reduce the severity and spread of wildfires by thinning out vegetation and creating firebreaks to slow their advance. 

You can find more resources on wildfires in British Columbia at www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/wildfire-status

Sources: British Columbia – What Causes Wildfires, HealthLink BC – Wildfires and Your Health, Government of Canada – Get Prepared,

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