Wildfire Prevention Could be Crucial in the Fight Against COVID-19

The potentially disastrous complications wildfires will bring to fighting the pandemic need to be addressed by policy

(Flickr/ Jeremy Hiebert)

We’re about a month into the outbreak of COVID-19 in British Columbia, and health officials are expressing cautious optimism about the province’s ability to handle the pandemic.

Recent data suggests that social distancing is slowing the increase of transmission in B.C., but with wildfire season approaching, it may become more difficult to mitigate the dangers of the virus.

Researchers are worried that the reduction in air quality caused by wildfire smoke will increase the severity of respiratory symptoms in patients, pointing to data collected during the 2003 SARS outbreak which shows that elevated levels of air pollution greatly increased the risk of death for those who tested positive for the virus.

For now, Air Quality Health Index readings indicate low health risk levels across the province, though this will change in the upcoming months as smoke from wildfires begins to spread.

“Right now the most cited mortality is between one to two per cent from COVID 19. That is likely to escalate during the wildfire season,” Dr. Don Sin told Global News in March.

Sin is the head of Respiratory Medicine at Providence Health Care in Vancouver, a chair at the Centre for Heart Lung Innovation, and a UBC professor in the university’s department of medicine who specializes in respirology. He predicts that the increase in air pollution will exacerbate the chances that people with COVID-19 will develop severe pneumonia.

“There will be more people coming into the emergency room, more people coming into the intensive care unit, more people requiring mechanical ventilation and probably more people dying,” he said.

Data from 2017 and 2018 shows that the persisting decreases in air quality resulting from B.C. wildfires was linked to increases in physician visits, an increased need for medications which treat lung conditions like COPD and asthma, and an increase in people needing inhalers.

UBC Med recently published a Q&A with health and policy experts discussing the connection between air pollution, wildfires, and the outbreak. Suggested measures to mitigate air pollution include banning fires — even ones in fireplaces or those used to heat homes unless absolutely necessary — and banning the burning of debris. It’s also advised that people with pre-existing conditions make sure they have reliable access to medication and think about buying air cleaners.

Aside from air quality, evacuating areas affected by wildfires — something which can already be extremely difficult and costly — necessitates that people leave their homes. This disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of the community, especially those who need to rely on temporary or transition shelters, and the BC Centre for Disease Control explicitly says that unsheltered people are at higher risk of infection.

B.C.’s public health playbook for responding to wildfires includes designating spaces with adequate filtration as clean air shelters. Larger buildings like schools and libraries may also be designated as community clean air shelters where people can go to escape the smoke. Obviously, clustering a large number of people into a single confined space increases the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission throughout the community.

Thankfully, some experts and government organizations are already looking at ways to deal with the overlap of COVID-19 and fire season. The BC Wildfire Service is rolling out precautionary measures like training groups of new recruits at multiple seperate locations instead of larger camps and increasing resources for crews to maintain personal hygiene. In addition, the 2020 B.C. Budget allocated an additional $65 million to emergency funding for dealing with wildfires this year, with more on the way.

The BCWS has determined that an average of 42.5 per cent of all wildfires in B.C. over the past 10 years were caused by people. That may seem like an alarming statistic, but the good news is that it’s a statistic that we can control through smartly enacted policies like strict fire bans and a focused reallocation of resources for fire services in rural areas. A handful of wildfires have already started in B.C. this year, and are either being contained or have been put out. This issue needs to be addressed now, before it gets worse.

Just like we have the ability to flatten the curve and deal with the pandemic through proactive planning, we can prepare for wildfire season. The sooner the province can implement policies which lower the risk of wildfires, the more lives will be saved.