Smoky skies spurs health warnings in Okanagan

Doctors at Penticton Regional Hospital haven’t reported any significant spike in patient visits due to the smoky skies hovering in the region, according to Interior Health.

Skies in Penticton — and throughout the Okanagan and B.C. — have seen fluctuating levels of smoke, with levels reaching a “high” risk late last week and early this week, according to the air quality health index (AQHI).

Forecasts appear uncertain, too, with forecasts earlier this week regularly expecting smoke to blow out of Penticton’s skies, but Tuesday afternoon it appeared present as ever.

But despite being at a “high” risk for the better part of five days, that hasn’t had any significant effect on health emergencies in the area.

“There has been no noticeable increase in the number of patients at Penticton Regional Hospital presenting with health concerns due to wildfire smoke,” said PRH health service director Deb Runge in a statement.

“However, we know that smoke during wildfire season may exacerbate certain chronic medical conditions. We encourage the public to take note of the public health advice offered by our medical health office in order to protect themselves.”

The AQHI risk level did dip down as low as a level one (low risk) in the South Okanagan on Saturday, but rocketed back up to a level five (moderate risk) later that day. Sunday saw similar fluctuations in air quality, but since Monday evening the smoke has been solidly at a level seven (high risk), with air quality at a moderate risk earlier in the day on Monday.

Interior Health says it is “monitoring the situation on an ongoing basis,” alongside the B.C. CDC, amid B.C.’s second-worst fire season in recorded history.

IH is pointing people to a smoky skies bulletin recently released, in which it offers some advice for those worried about effects of smoke.

“Some individuals may be more sensitive to the effects of smoke from forest fires, such as those with heart or lung conditions,” the bulletin reads.

“These individuals should watch for any change in symptoms that may be due to smoke exposure. If any symptoms are noted, affected individuals should take steps to reduce their exposure to smoke and if necessary see their physician or local walk-in clinic.”

In addition to reducing exposure to smoke, IH recommends people keep cool and drink fluids, and stay in doors to try to get away from the smoke.

Particularly, IH advises people try to visit places with cooler, filtered air, noting that not all air conditioning systems filter the air or improve air quality.

IH also advises people avoid smoking indoors to help keep indoor areas less smoky.

“Residents with asthma or other chronic illness should activate their asthma or personal care plan,” the bulletin reads. “Pay attention to local air quality reports; air quality may be poor even though smoke may not be visible.”

IH also points to the use of high efficiency particulate air filters, which it says can reduce poor air quality indoors.

Most at risk are those with pre-existing conditions, pregnant women, infants and small children and the elderly.

A smoky skies bulletin released by the B.C. Ministry of Environment on Monday asked people in the Okanagan, along with nearly 30 other areas in B.C., to avoid strenuous activities outdoors.

“If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, contact your health care provider: difficulty in breathing, chest pain or discomfort, and sudden onset of cough or irritation of airways,” the ministry said in the bulletin.

But the Okanagan is far from the worst-hit area — Kamloops has been seeing air quality levels hit new records, at one point scoring higher than the 2015 ‘red alert’ in China, reaching a level 49.