Regional governments and the Province have brought in restrictions on burning, to help those with respiratory conditions during the current pandemic.
The COVID-19 situation is forcing the wider community to think about respiratory health. For some who live with ongoing conditions though, they wonder why it is taking a pandemic to bring the issue forward. They point to difficulties in breathing posed by slash burning of wood waste or the continuing practice of residents using wood-burning stoves.
The Record contacted Mosaic Forest Management (TimberWest), which operates in the region, about slash burning. A company spokesperson said Mosaic is not burning in the region this spring and rarely does, adding there are no plans to do so until October.
As well, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development responded, “The BC Wildfire Service is monitoring the COVID-19 situation to determine whether it could have an impact on prescribed burning, wildfire risk mitigation projects, open burning and any related open fire restrictions.”
On March 24, regional governments and fire departments in the Comox Valley announced open fire restrictions aimed at clearing the air to go into effect on April 1, though some jurisdictions will allow campfire and recreational backyard fires.
A couple of days later, the Province announced open burning restrictions to “high smoke sensitivity areas” in B.C.. These are currently scheduled to last until April 15.
Bev Hyde, who lives with her husband in Courtenay, has severe allergies and respiratory issues. She has also had breast cancer and a compromised immune system, and for her, the latest moves do not go far enough. The couple is still seeing and smelling smoke blanketing the valley. She would like to see a province-wide ban expanded because of the ability of airflows from outside the region to spread into the Valley.
“I’m really suffering,” she said. “I actually smell it in our house, and we have a brand new house.”
The couple has taken precautions such as adding new filter systems to their home.
“We’ve done everything just because of the way I have to live,” she said.
On top of her health, Hyde has experienced some nasty responses from people when she does go out, with her mask on, on the assumption she’s a hoarder who has loaded up on masks and deprived medical professionals who need them. One woman told her she should not even be in the grocery lineup with the mask on.
“Now, I’m getting harassed by people for wearing the mask,” she said. “I’m having to explain myself from a distance.”
People like Hyde with compromised immune systems need masks too, so these misunderstandings are a source of frustration. Her response has been to write the word “allergies” across her mask to let people know she is not someone in good health keeping a mask out of the hands of someone who needs one.
Hyde is far from the only person facing respiratory issues. Sherril Guthrie contacted The Record by email about the issue. She routinely checks a local air quality site and, at night, often finds fine particulate matter (PM2.5) at twice the provincial guidelines.
She and her husband are retired and leave the Comox Valley every winter to escape the trapped smoke from wood-burning fireplaces and stoves. This year they chose Portugal and Spain, and she did check levels back home online before flying back in mid-March.
“Naturally, after spending six weeks in Spain and travelling with potentially infected air passengers en route home, we went into quarantine or self-isolation for 14 days. If you care about the health of your neighbours, friends and larger community, it’s what you do,” she said.
In response to the regional regulations, she said, “The changes aren’t happening fast enough to prevent additional respiratory cases and heart attacks in our Valley, but the open fire restrictions are another step in the right direction. So it’s great that our fire departments finally seem to acknowledge that open burning is a problem, while our CVRD no longer denies that burning — of any material — presents a serious public health risk for residents who breath our polluted air.”
The organization Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley provides more information on its website about issues around particulate matter in the air and the potential for it to cause health problems, as well as links to local air quality readings. It notes there are multiple air advisories in the area, for days at a time, issued each winter and that the Comox Valley is consistently ranked in the top 10 for areas in B.C. with the highest levels of fine particulate matter.
None of this is news for people with respiratory issues, who have to deal with breathing challenges as part of daily life, but Hyde realizes the current pandemic is forcing everyone now to consider the issueof air quality the same way.
“I think it’s the fact that we’ve never had to think this way,” she said. “We’re not grasping the seriousness of this. I am, because of my health issues…. Not everybody is catching on quick enough.”