B.C. Air Quality

Smoke and Burning

The smell of wood smoke on a cold, clear night. It sparks feelings of coziness, the simple life and getting back to the good old ways. We British Columbians have a long, close bond with wood, fire and smoke. Today we burn organic material for many reasons:

  • to heat our homes (wood stoves and fireplaces);
  • to dispose of debris from gardening, agriculture and land development;
  • to get rid of logging slash and prepare land for planting;
  • to dispose of sawmill wood residue;
  • to prevent wildfires;
  • to enhance wildlife habitat;
  • to improve cattle range; and
  • for beach and campfires.

But times have changed. What was once considered a harmless practice is now recognized as a major source of air pollution. Smoke from burning vegetation is now considered one of the most serious kinds of air pollution in British Columbia. In fact, it is more hazardous to British Columbians' health than smog.

In 2011 the Ministry of Environment released A Smoke Management Framework for British Columbia. The framework describes the wood smoke issue in British Columbia and compiles into one document all the programs that are in place in B.C. to minimize the impact of smoke emissions on human health. The framework was produced with the assistance of the Ministries of Agriculture; Energy and Mines; and Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

Wood smoke contains tiny particles called particulate matter (PM), and a large array of organic and inorganic compounds — the normal byproducts of wood combustion. It may also contain minute amounts of dioxins and furans, and a variety of other proven and suspected carcinogens.

Particulate matter that is 2.5 microns or less in diameter, called PM2.5, is small enough to be breathed into the deepest parts of our lungs. It is associated with all sorts of health problems — from a runny nose and coughing, to bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, pneumonia, heart disease and even death.

Senior citizens, infants and people who already have lung or heart problems are most at risk, but healthy younger adults and children can also be affected.

Research has shown that there is no threshold below which smoke has no health effects. For more information, see Every Breath You Take…. Provincial Health Officer’s Annual Report 2003, Air Quality in British Columbia, A Public Health Perspective. A recent review of the health effects of wood smoke see How Wood Smoke Harms Your Health – Washington Department of Ecology – 2012.

Smoke causes other problems as well. It can blot out the landscape so effectively that road and air travel are dangerously affected, and beautiful views are hidden. Smoke is also a sign that we aren't using our resources wisely: much of the material sent up in smoke could be turned into a valuable product, such as compost, wood chips, particle board, wood pellets. It can also be used as fuel to fire congeneration plants, which simultaneously generate electricity and heat.

The Recycling Council of BC has put together an inventory of businesses and facilities in every regional district that accept household and business vegetative debris. See Recycling Council of British Columbia (RCBC): Directory of Alternatives to Open Burning.

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