Forest fire smoke
What is forest fire (wildfire) smoke?
With hot, dry weather comes an increased risk of wildfires. Smoke from wildfires is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and plant materials. The smoke releases many contaminants into the air, such as:
- particulate matter (Environment Canada)
- nitrogen oxides (NOx) (Environment Canada)
- carbon monoxide (CO) (Environment Canada)
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (Environment Canada)
- dioxins and furans (Health Canada)
- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (Health Canada)
What are the health effects from breathing forest fire smoke?
Most healthy adults and children will recover quickly from smoke exposures and will not suffer long-term consequences. However, the elderly, children, pregnant women, people who smoke, and people with asthma, airway hyper-responsiveness, or cardiovascular disease may experience more severe short-term, as well as long-term chronic symptoms from smoke exposure.
The most common health effects from exposure to smoke:
- eye, nose, and throat irritation
- headaches, nausea, and dizziness
- increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing
- decreased lung function
- worsening asthma
- development of chronic bronchitis
- irregular heartbeat
- non-fatal heart attacks
- premature death in people with heart or lung disease
How can you protect yourself from forest fire smoke?
If there is smoke you should:
- Stay inside with windows and doors shut.
- Use the recycle or recirculate mode on the air conditioner in your home or car.
- Avoid cooking and vacuuming, as they can increase pollutants indoors.
- Avoid physical exertion.
- People who have asthma should follow their asthma management plan.
- Keep at least a 5-day supply of medication on hand.
- Contact your doctor if you have chest pain, chest tightness, shortness of breath, or severe fatigue. This is important for people with chronic lung or heart disease and for people who have not been previously diagnosed with such diseases. Smoke can “unmask” or produce symptoms of illness.
- Keep airways moist by drinking lots of water. Breathe through a warm, wet washcloth to help relieve dryness.
- Consider wearing a fitted mask (OSHA N95) unless it interferes with your breathing. A dust mask will not protect you from smoke.
What should you do if you see a wildfire approaching your home?
If you see a wildfire approaching your home or community, report it immediately by calling 911 or your local emergency number. If it is safe to do so, and if there is time before the fire arrives, take the following action:
- Close all windows and doors in the house.
- Cover vents, windows, and other openings of the house with duct tape or pre-cut pieces of plywood.
- Park your car, unlocked, with the keys in the ignition, and positioned forward out of the driveway. Keep your car windows closed. Have your valuables already packed in your car.
- Turn off propane or natural gas. Move any propane barbecues into the open, away from structures.
- Turn on the lights in the house, porch, garage, and yard to help with visibility in case smoke fills the house.
- Inside the house, move combustible materials such as curtains and furniture away from the windows.
- Place a ladder to the roof in the front of the house.
- If water is available, turn sprinklers on to wet the roof and any waterproof valuables.
- Move all combustibles away from the house, including firewood and lawn furniture.
- Evacuate your family and pets to a safe location.
- Stay tuned to your local radio station for up-to-date information on the fire and possible road closures.
- Be prepared to evacuate at any time. If told to evacuate, do so immediately.
For more information:
If you would like to speak to a public health inspector about forest fire smoke, you can submit your question or complaint electronically or call the Health Unit at 705.522.9200, ext. 464 (toll-free 1.866.522.9200).
- Wildfires (Government of Canada)
- Protect yourself from wildfire smoke (Center for Disease and Control and Prevention)
- Current fire situation (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry)
- Emergency management: Forest fire smoke and your health (Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care)
This item was last modified on July 8, 2015