Wildfires, air quality, and emergency planning: Is your business prepared?Lisa Thibault
In 2016, a devastating wildfire quickly spread throughout the community of Fort McMurray, Alberta. It forced the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta history, with more than 88,000 people forced from their homes and workplaces. More than 2,400 homes and buildings burned to the ground, displacing hundreds of residents and businesses.
The Fort McMurray fire was preceded by unusually hot, dry air over Northern Alberta—resulting in record-setting temperatures. British Columbia recently experienced a similar scenario in which a prolonged “heat dome” shattered heat temperatures dozens of times over a few days and may have contributed to the tragic fire that destroyed much of Lytton and took at least two lives.
Wildfires are a very real risk in British Columbia, especially between April and October during wildfire season. There are more than 200 active wildfires in the province at the time of writing—and a third of them are burning out of control.
Wildfires can spread quickly, particularly in hot, dry conditions. In addition to their potential to destroy wildlife habitats, forests, and watersheds, wildfires can level community infrastructure, homes, and business properties and damage cultural and economic resources. Additionally, wildfires increase the potential for flooding, debris flows, and landslides—and wildfire smoke can also cause significant health problems.
Plan now to help protect your people—and your business—from the destructive impact of wildfires.
The BC Occupational Health and Safety Regulation does not require employers to have a specific wildfire plan. Still, every employer should be prepared with an emergency response plan that addresses the particular risks of their region—including wildfires.
Your emergency plan for wildfires should include:
- An evacuation plan that you have tested with your employees
- Safety zones around your building
- Equipment on hand in case a wildfire occurs
- Training, education, and communication to ensure that workers know what to do in the event of a wildfire and emergency evacuation
Prepare in advance to help workers get to safety before a wildfire devastates your community. Employees must know and understand what to do if they need to evacuate your worksite quickly. Know the evacuation routes from your facility and create a procedure to account for ALL employees after an emergency evacuation.
ACTION » Get alerts about wildfires in your region
- C. Wildfire Service Information Bulletins
- C. Wildfire Service on Twitter
- C. Wildfire Service on Facebook
- C. Wildfire Dashboard
- Fire information line: 1-888-336-7378
Smoke from wildfire and wildfire cleanup contains chemicals, gases, and fine particles that can harm human health. These hazards can continue even after fires are under control. Fine particles in the air can reduce lung function and cause coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Most symptoms are short-lived in otherwise healthy people but can be a significant problem for people with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, COPD, and heart conditions.
Symptoms of smoke exposure include:
- Irritation to eyes, nose, and throat
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
- Trouble breathing as normal
- Running nose
- Asthma attacks
Outdoor air quality
Protect outdoor workers exposed to smoke from wildfires. Reduce exposure to smoke as much as possible and follow the air quality advisories for your region. Use the controls available for your situation to reduce the risk to workers.
- Move work to enclosed spaces with filtered air or another location with better air quality
- Change work schedules or move work indoors where possible to reduce time in unhealthy air
- Respiratory PPE to filter particulates is recommended for employees who have to work outdoors for prolonged periods when the local air quality index is 7 or higher, and especially when the index is 10+. Choose masks or respirator filters labeled N95, N99, N100, R95, P95, P99, or P100).
- Note that it takes more effort to breathe through a respirator, and prolonged use of masks in high temperatures can increase the risk of heat stress. Provide frequent rest breaks, and advise workers feeling dizzy, faint, or nauseated to go to a shaded area (preferably out of the smoke), remove the respirator, and seek medical attention.
- Discard respirators if they become difficult to breathe through, or if the inside becomes dirty. Use a new respirator each day.
Indoor air quality
Working inside a building with a properly maintained ventilation system—and where windows and doors (including loading bay doors) are kept closed as much as possible—will provide some protection for workers from the smoke of nearby wildfires. Regularly inspect and maintain your HVAC system to make sure it is running correctly. You can also improve indoor air quality by running portable air cleaners with HEPA filters.
ACTION » Learn about the air quality in your area
No matter where you are in British Columbia, you are at risk for wildfire. Prepare now to reduce the harm to your people and business.
LEARN MORE »
- Emergency Response Planning (online course)
- C. Wildfire Service
- Emergency Info BC
- Wildfires and Your Health
RESPIRATORY PROTECTION RESOURCES »
- Checklist | Respirator Inspection
- Poster | Particular Filter Types
- Poster | User seal checks for reusable half-face respirators with cartridge
- Video | User seal checks for disposable respirators
- Poster | User seal checks for reusable half-face respirators with filter
- Video | Donning and doffing reusable half-face respirators
- Video | Donning and doffing a disposable respirator