Spatial assessment of forest fire smoke exposure and its health effects in the southern interior of British Columbia during the summer of 2003

The forested mountains and dry valleys of British Columbia’s southern interior make this region susceptible to summertime wildfires. During the unprecedented 2003 season more than 6,900 fires destroyed 343 homes, consumed 260,000 hectares, and exposed up to 640,000 residents to potentially harmful levels of smoke. Forest fire smoke has several similarities to urban air pollution. Both include tiny, airborne particles that can irritate the lungs and place stress on the entire cardio-respiratory system. However, since forest fires usually burn in sparsely populated areas with limited air quality monitoring, it has been difficult to determine whether smoke particles carry the same health risks as their urban relatives. Sarah Henderson is using computer simulations in combination with satellite data to estimate the daily smoke exposure of southern interior residents between July 1st and September 30th, 2003. She will correlate her results with regional hospitalizations to determine how the risk for respiratory and cardiovascular disease is affected by exposure to forest fire smoke. This study will help to explain the health effects of fire smoke and Sarah hopes that it will influence forest management policy in the future.