A story this evening of two wildfires burning near Chase, BC, stirred up an internal sense of panic.
This panic is not the need to build an evacuation kit or be prepared to leave the city in a moments notice. No, that’s not what this anxiety is. This is the anxiety of living in wildfire smoke, a symptom not really studied or talked about… but perhaps one that resonates with too many people.
Prince George is no stranger to air quality advisories. The air quality is terribly poor due to many factors like the pressure systems and shape of the region. Add a few mills, cars, railway, sand on the roads, and other industrial operations and your bound to have some issues. And while we’ve been living under air advisor for most of the month, it’s vastly gone unnoticed by those of us in good health. Sure, my lungs struggle a little if I get out of my car beside a busy dusty road, but overall I’m okay.
These days where the air quality is bad enough for an advisory but still unnoticeable to the healthy every-day person, are not the day I fear. The days I fear are the ones where air quality advisory where the scales topple 150 PPM (because let’s get real the 1-10 scale Environment Canada insists on using is not helpful when you can’t see across a lake and should probably be inside next to your air purifier).
The Wildfire Season of 2018
If I thought the 16 weeks of winter lasted forever it’s because I forgot about how the sky can go pitch black at 9 am in the middle of summer. It happened during the Summer of 2018, and it wasn’t the first time in my near 10 years in Prince George.
We lived under a blanket of smoke for not just days, but weeks. It was the kind of smoke that made healthy lungs cough and eyes begin to sting. It was the kind of smoke that made it difficult to see across the lake and sometimes across the street. It was the kind of smoke that isolated mothers and wound up children.
Summer time is for days at the lake, nights out at the cabin, and hiking your favourite trails. But, when the wildfire smoke came in, plans were canceled and money was spent on a HEPA air purifier (reminder: change your filter).
And when you live in the land of snow, where summer is a short 3 months of being able to wear shorts, play in the water, and tackle mountain climbing with children, it becomes a sadness when that’s robbed from you because it’s too dangerous to breathe the air.
It’s because even when the smoke wasn’t bad enough to make the day go dark, it was bad enough to make the skies go grey. I grew up in Vancouver, I know what days of rain will do to a person. Thats how days of smokey skies feel. It feels like death. It feels like depression. It feels like forgetting what the sunshine even looks like. It feels like a reminder that theres never enough Vitamin D.
Even days where it looks gorgeous, I know the air quality was rated in the red and the recommendation was to stay inside. But after days of indoors because of falling ash, we went out to the fair anyways. It becomes this idea that if you can see your neighbours house it’s safe enough to be outside, buts a false health recommendation.
I’ve been planning for 2019…
Thinking about summer and the potential to be living in the smoke (again) sets off a churn in my stomach, my heart speeds up, and I begin to quickly feel overwhelmed and crushed. My soul knows that winter was hard and that there is a chance the summer will be even harder.
I bought the kids the indoor play gym because not only do we have months of winter, but also months of indoor summer play because the air is too toxic for anyone to breathe.
I’ve been thinking about how I should plan a vacation not to visit my family but to save our lungs and just breathe without hacking. But last year when we tried to escape the smoke by visiting Tumbler Ridge, the smoke followed us. So, I’m skeptical that I’ll have any luck unless I leave the country.
I’m considering more air purifiers.
I’m not sure what the summer will look like. In Prince George access to safe clean indoor play spaces is limited. Strong Start programs don’t run, and we’re left with a few other suggestions which not always the best choice for your children or your family. The need for indoor play is not just for the cold but for the hot smoky summer days. But providing these services to the community is not an easy task to just pick up and do.
We don’t yet know the health impacts of living in the smoke. They say it’s probably safe because it’s just trees, but wasn’t there a study about glyphosate levels in Northern forests being concerning? I guess I’ll be the health study in 10-20-50 years to see how my body has handled summers of smoke, and even more concerning the impact on growing lungs of newborns born into the smoke.
And so here I am, one mom to another telling you that I’m worried about this summer and the next, and the next.
I’m worried about my mental health and having access to the friends and family, and the outdoors that I need to flourish. I’m worried about my health and my children health as we breathe in forest fire smoke daily. I’m worried about our community and how wildfire impacts everything else.
I’m worried about a lot of things and wildfire smoke has left a lasting impression on me. Because it’s probably not normal to have pangs of anxiety when you reflect on the smokey images of summers past.
If you would like to share your stories of the Wildfire Season, we would love to share them. We understand that motherhood is not one experience but many. We know that you are not alone in your journey, and if you feel alone in your journey that having a space to share and connect is invaluable. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d love to connect.