Climate change impacts on human health: what are the health costs of wildfires?

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“Your clothes smell like campfire,” my partner remarked as I leaned in for my welcome home hug after a week of visiting family and friends in Interior BC this August. In fact, I had not been anywhere near a campfire. Despite laundry and showers, wildfire smoke had permeated my clothes and hair in the little time I had spent outdoors, and when a few minutes of an open door or window would fill the car or house with smoke.

Take a deep breath to calm yourself?

With the number and intensity of wildfires showing no signs of slowing down, the government of BC declared a provincewide state of emergency earlier this summer. Communities, agencies and volunteers were called into action in a coordinated effort to help protect property, infrastructure, and the public. Around 5000 people were evacuated during this time, with many more on alert, plagued by dark, hazy orange skies as they lined up at emergency reception centres fearing for their homes, pets and livelihoods. Throughout the summer many communities across the province were also forced to endure the physical and mental health challenges associated with hazy skies and poor air quality. Not only is this a concern for the general population, but it is especially worrisome for populations such as children and the elderly, as well as those with preexisting heart or breathing problems.

A map of fires and their health risks from BC 2018.

To say that the number of wildfires and their impacts on communities across BC have been overwhelming would be an understatement. Wildfires had burned through nearly 940,000 hectares, or 10 000 square kilometres in BC by the end of August. With 2018 on record as the second-largest fire season since 1950 (second only to last year), and as we prepare for our November Symposium Making the Links: Climate Change, Human, Health & Resilience with our partners it’s got us pondering a critical question: What are the short- and long-term impacts of these wildfires on our health, and what can we do about it?

Where can we go?

There were several times throughout my visit to the Interior where I felt anxious and even panicked by the smoke and my inability to breathe easily. I worried about my 9-year old daughter who has a history of respiratory issues. When I got reports from my Vancouver Island home that winds had blown the smoke west and was significantly affecting air quality there, I found myself panicking: “How do we get out of this, where do we go?”

While my panic was quite literally about where to go, the Making the Links Symposium is fundamentally about this question on a larger scale: How do we “get out of this”, and “where can we go” when we come together across sectors to creatively respond to these challenges and build a different future? How can addressing climate change be an opportunity to improve health and wellbeing, and build community resilience?

There are no easy answers to the big questions we will be exploring together at Making the Links, but we know that together we are capable of much more than any of us working in isolation. We’ll be hearing from keynote speakers Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum (World Health Organization) and Kristie Ebi (Center for Health & the Global Environment, University of Washington) along with many other organizations and communities. We’ll explore topics such as the mental health impacts of climate change and learn from stories of how communities are coming together to prepare, respond and recover from issues such as flooding and wildfire.

Join us in Kelowna November 5 & 6 for Making the Links: Climate Change, Community Health & Resilience to explore these and other related issues, as we come together to map out opportunities for collaborative action that builds community resilience.

See the growing list of speakers & presenters 

See the Symposium Agenda 

This post was written with expertise and files from Kelsey Yamasaki.

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