On a warm summer morning in mid-August, Revelstoke residents woke up to smoke unlike anything they’d seen for about six years. The haze that settled upon the town overnight worsened throughout the day as the smoky skies turned darker, finally showering vehicles and properties around the community in a light dusting of ash. At that time, air quality plummeted in the region, forcing some to reconsider their daily physical activities and perhaps consider how the air around them affects them.
The saying ‘you never know what you have until it’s gone’ is a simple and effective way to understand Revelstoke’s relationship with air quality.
Air quality in Revelstoke is generally not an issue. The large forests around the municipality and the limited vehicle traffic in the region (compared to big cities) can sometimes give locals some of the cleanest measurable air on the planet. But when the sky darkens from the smoke, and properties are covered in ash, it’s hard to remember the clean air days.
It was one of the smoky days that spurred a Revelstoke local to put in the effort that it took to crowdfund Revelstoke’s first air quality monitoring system. Ian Houghton, the resident responsible for establishing the first local air quality monitoring system, described what led him to do so.
“2017, I think, was the first really bad smoke year that I can recall,” said Houghton.
Houghton moved to Revelstoke in 2010. Houghton would be the first to admit that he’s not an air quality specialist — he works in an entirely different realm with Parks Canada. Despite his lack of air quality expertise, Houghton had seen his fair share of fire seasons in the seven years between his sourcing of the air quality system and when he moved.
2017 was a curious year for the BC Wildfire Service. Compared to other years, the season had fewer total fires at more than 1,300 wildfires than previous years which had more than 1,800. The difference with 2017 was in how destructive the fires that burned were.
For example, in 2015, the total number of wildfires for the year was 1,858 with more than 280,000 hectares burned. In contrast, 2017 burned more than 1.2 million hectares, resulting in just short of $650 million in damages. This year, BC broke its own record by cresting 2 million hectares burned.
At the time of the fires in 2017, Houghton had recently become a father, causing him to consider the impact that the smoke from the fires would have on someone other than himself. He explained what was going through his head when he began to think about air quality differently.
“There’s not much we can realistically do about this. But it would be nice to know what it’s doing to us,” he said.
Houghton decided to investigate whether the City of Revelstoke had a local air quality monitoring system and found that there wasn’t one. Spurred by the smoke irritating his lungs and permeating throughout the town, Houghton did what so many in Revelstoke have done — he went to the Facebook Community Page with his problem.
“I reached out on the community Facebook page to start a fundraiser [and] put some money in myself,” said Houghton, adding that it was a “really positive response.”
In just a few days, Houghton had fundraised enough money to purchase the system. He bought a PurpleAir sensor, which is a company dedicated to making products that monitor air. The company has sensors that monitor both indoor and outdoor air.
After purchasing the sensor, Houghton still had some money left over from the fundraising he’d done. With the extra money, he built a website for the monitoring system, so that locals could easily go to one place to learn about the air quality in town.
With the speed of the fundraising effort and the positive feedback that he’d received from the Facebook group, Houghton was heartened to see the community interest in air quality that mirrored his own.
“It’s just so nice to know that everyone was on the same page about the conditions outside,” said Houghton.
Once he installed the system, Houghton noticed other PurpleAIr sensors were being installed by different people around the community. On its website, PurpleAir shows all its sensors on a map, displaying the various data that each of the sensors track. Since Houghton installed his several years ago, the community’s air monitoring has improved, with more than a dozen spread out across the town.
Reflecting on how the community responded to his initial request, Houghton hoped that it would help the community consider the future of air quality in the region in addition to monitoring the daily conditions.
“I hope that people are not only concerned about the short-term health impacts, but also what this says about where we’re going long-term,” said Houghton.
His concerns with the long-term effects of poor air quality, as it turned out, were not unfounded.
Dr. Stéphane Trépanier, a medical health officer for the Thompson Cariboo region of Interior Health, explained what the concerns are for municipalities in interior BC, including Revelstoke, of poor air quality.
“In the long term, it increases the person’s risk for some disease, including stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” said Trépanier initially, adding that in especially bad circumstances it can lead to cancer.
Revelstoke’s air quality, as mentioned previously, is clear for the majority of the year. In the fall, winter, spring, and most of the summer, Revelstoke’s air quality, measured on the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) scale, fluctuates between one and three, which is a healthy range.
The issue, unsurprisingly, arises in the summertime when the wildfires pick up. Dr. Trépanier said that wildfire smoke is the major issue across the province for air quality. With the wildfires comes the smoke, and with the smoke comes particulate matter in the air, which is the biggest contributor to poor air quality in Revelstoke.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is used in the United States and other countries to provide a metric for air quality.
Particulate matter is part of the calculation for AQI around the world. The rest of the equation includes measurements of the ground level ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide’s presence in the air.
An AQI between 0 and 100 is moderate or good, but an AQI from 150–500 ranges from simply unhealthy to outright hazardous.
Over the past several years, Canada developed its own air quality scale, known as the AQHI. AQHI differs from AQI in that the ratings run from 1–10+ and are meant to indicate the level of risk for Canadians’ health. Measuring AQHI also differs in that it only examines particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and ground-level ozone in the air. The Canadian system prioritizes health risks based on the level of pollutants in the air as opposed to the AQI, which simply provides a level.
On Aug. 17, Revelstoke’s AQHI was 11 and its AQI was nearly 260. Based on either of the ratings, the air quality was unhealthy for residents.
The ratings were a warning to the community to ensure they took the steps to mitigate the negative health impacts of the poor air quality induced by the smoke. The information is even more valuable to Revelstoke residents –and tourists who travelled here– because of the level of physical activity in the community.
In an article published in the 1967 Atmospheric Environment journal examining the effect of air pollution on athletes, the review found that the negative effects of poor air quality are exacerbated for athletes. The aggravation comes from the increased stress on the pulmonary system when the rate of breathing increases.
With Revelstoke’s reputation for hiking, mountain biking, swimming, and other outdoor activities that increase someone’s breathing, the community must be even more cautious when the air quality gets bad.
As climate change continues, wildfire seasons like that of 2023 will likely continue, creating more smoke events like Revelstoke had in August. Dr. Trépanier spoke about how resident’s reactions to smoke events may have to shift.
“There is, I think, two ways to react to climate change, or at least to more wildfire and more smoke in the years to come,” started Dr. Trépanier.
He said that the first option is to change nothing about daily habits and assume the risk of the cumulative long-term effects of the inhalation. The second option is one that humans have had to do for our entire collective existence: adapt.
“The adaptation can be to just stay at home but take care of ourselves during that time,” said Dr. Trépanier.
He gave examples of taking more time to clean, to cook, and to exercise at home. Houghton’s concern was for the people who don’t get a choice.
“For other people who don’t have a choice in that matter, it’s much more of an elevated risk,” he said.
For those who work outside — the people who don’t have the option of working from home or reducing their activity, the effects of smoke during the wildfire season –and the poor air quality it brings– are unavoidable.
For the people who work outside and must contend with the smoke, Dr. Trépanier said that places of work will have to become more flexible for their workers. As the climate crisis worsens and the fires continue, Dr. Trépanier said that air quality will have to be considered when deciding whether working outside is necessary.
In 2016, Health Canada estimated that more than 15,000 premature deaths in Canada were attributed to air pollution, which is why Canada –along with many other countries in the world– recognizes air pollution as a ‘leading factor’ in premature mortality.
Most residents likely don’t consider air quality before they leave their homes the way many do with the weather, but Dr. Trépanier said that time may be coming.
Next wildfire season, when the smoke hits, Houghton suggested having a quick look outside to gauge the amount of smoke. If you can see the tops of the mountains, he said the air is usually fine. If you find your view of the spectacular mountains that surround Revelstoke obstructed, think twice about your level of activity that day.