Wildfires take health toll as climate change helps usher in 'new normal'
'It is a scary thought, but if we’re going to be realistic about the decades ahead we are just going to see more and more fires,' public health expert warns.
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As 7,000 British Columbians were evacuated and hundreds of fires consumed 23,600 hectares of B.C. Sunday, public health and climate change researchers are working behind the scenes to help authorities brace for the greater impacts of climate change.
Although “we cannot attribute any single wildfire to climate change,” cautioned Sarah Henderson, senior scientist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and UBC public health professor, warming temperatures have "certainly" contributed to “more aggressive” and frequent fires which she said are no longer merely “extreme events.”
“What we’re seeing right now — and what we saw in Alberta last year — we are conditioned to think of as extreme events,” she said, “but I think we have to start shifting our thinking such that we perceive them as what could be the new normal, and the need for adaptation to these events within our health authorities and larger populations themselves."
Air pollution from wildfire smoke has health effects "for a long time,” she said, especially on those with respiratory illness, pregnant women, infants and seniors, and her team is developing a tool for health authorities to predict those health needs days ahead.
“It is a scary thought, but if we’re going to be realistic about the decades ahead, we are just going to see more and more fires and we have to ensure our communities are as prepared as possible," said Henderson.
“There’s growing awareness about the need for adaptation to these events within our health authorities and larger populations themselves, and Health Canada’s quite active in trying to build communities’ resiliency."
In the final week of June, temperatures exceeded 11 heat records in the province, with Lytton reaching a searing 36.5C, its hottest in nearly a century.
And a new report based on 31 climate models predicted Vancouver’s summer high temperatures will rise by at least 7C by 2100, escalating wildfire frequencies and heat-related mortalities alike.
“We cannot attribute any single wildfire to the effects of climate change,” Henderson cautioned, “but certainly there’s a lot of complex systems that are part of any given wildfire season, and we’re seeing bigger and more aggressive fires in B.C. over the past few decades.
“There’s growing awareness about the need for adaptation to these events within our health authorities and larger populations themselves, and Health Canada’s quite active in trying to build communities’ resiliency.
“With climate change, you have to expect the unexpected. We have these models that tell us what might happen, but you never really know what might happen beyond what the models predict.”
Her team of researchers are currently developing a system to help medical health officers across B.C. predict the public health impacts of wildfire smoke in advance so they can ensure adequate supplies and staff.
“Rather than retrospectively saying, ‘These were the health effects of smoke,’ we want to be able to tell them 48 hours in advance, ‘This is what to expect.’”
Additionally, she said that evacuees will likely be impacted emotionally by the trauma of the ordeal and danger some face.
“The psychological impacts of these processes are going to be huge,” she said. “It’s exceptionally traumatic. If you’ve seen some of the videos out of Fort Mac last year, or B.C. this year, it looks like hell.”