How To Prepare For A Smokier Future

Forest fires aren’t going away anytime soon. Here’s how to protect yourself and your family from the harmful effects of wildfire smoke.
How To Prepare For A Smokier Future

A wildfire burns in a forest near the town of Cochrane, Ont. (Photo: The Canadian Press/HO-Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry)

Last year, you’d have been hard-pressed to find many spots in Canada that didn’t had an air quality warning due to wildfire smoke. In 2023, more than 18 million hectares burned across the country—a shocking amount when you consider that the annual average over the past 25 years has been just over 330,000 hectares.

The bad news is that last year’s epic fires aren’t an anomaly. Thanks to the effects of climate change, experts say we can expect to see more and bigger wildfires in the future and a longer fire season, too.

But the good news is we’re not helpless in the face of this looming disaster. There are two main areas to focus on: climate action and climate resilience. The first involves getting off fossil fuels as much as possible, as soon as possible. The second? Setting up your life, and your community, to live as well as you can under the circumstances.

Here are the best ways to prepare for a smokier future ahead.

What’s so bad about wildfire smoke?


“Smoke is such a complex mixture of potentially harmful pollutants,” says Dr. Michael Schwandt, medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health. Not only does it irritate the eyes, throat and nose, but it can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream.

That means inhaling smoke is not just bad for our breathing. It can also cause generalized inflammation that can worsen the rate of heart attacks for people with underlying conditions and cause other problems, too. “It's really quite a negative impact on health,” Schwandt says.


And while a lot of the harmful health effects of wildfire smoke are short-term—as in, they are only a problem while the smoke is in the air—there could be long-term effects, too. Air pollution in general already contributes to more than 15,000 premature deaths a year in Canada. The impact of wildfire smoke has yet to be sufficiently studied.

According to Angela Yao, a senior scientist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) who specializes in climate change adaptation, early evidence shows that wildfire smoke exposure might have an impact on birth outcomes and on the development of the lungs and immune system in fetuses and young infants. “More research is needed,” she says.

In short: You really don’t want to be breathing wildfire smoke if you can avoid it. And that goes double if you’re in a high-risk group, which includes the very young, seniors and people who spend a lot of time outdoors doing strenuous activities, as well as those who are pregnant or have asthma, COPD, heart disease or diabetes. “The science suggests that there isn’t a threshold for safe exposure,” says Schwandt, adding that we should aim for “the lowest exposure possible.”


You can check the air quality health index for your city or region to find out the level of risk and related recommendations. “There are health messages attached to each of those numbers,” says Yao. “Some people are more sensitive to the exposure, some are less so. You really need to listen to your body.”

How to make your home safer

“The best way to reduce exposure is to seek cleaner air as much as possible,” says Yao, which usually means staying indoors. But that raises the question: How clean is your indoor air? Many things we have or use inside our homes make the air less healthy: think gas stoves, mould, smoking and off-gassing from candles, carpets and cleaning products. In fact, Health Canada recommends ventilating your house as much as possible, by doing things like opening windows and doors periodically when outdoor air conditions permit.


But what if cracking the windows lets in more pollution than it lets out? The solution, Yao suggests, is to create a “clean air space” in your home. For instance, you might designate the living room as the best space to congregate, and improve the air there by keeping the room sealed and running an air purifier. (Note: Your kitchen is not an ideal room for a designated clean air space.)

Even better, if you have the budget, make your entire home into a clean air space by improving sealing and ventilation as well as ensuring any incoming air is well-filtered and purified as needed. Plus, remember that smoke season tends to coincide with hot weather, so keeping your home cool is another consideration, especially if you can’t open the windows.

Here are some things to address:

  • Seal cracks around doors and windows where smoke might enter.
  • If you have a forced-air furnace, stock up on high-quality filters and change them regularly. Look for filters with a high MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating, ideally MERV 13.
  • Find out if your heating or cooling system brings in outside air. If it does, learn how to switch it to recirculate when conditions are bad.
  • Purchase an air cleaner with a HEPA filter that’s an appropriate size for your home or the area of your home you’ll designate as  your clean air space during smoke events. Buy extra backup filters so they’re there when you need them. (For a more budget-friendly option, make your own box fan air filter using easy-to-find parts.)
  • If you don’t have air conditioning or won’t be able to use it during smoke events, look for other ways to keep yourself and your home cooler, like shading sunny windows and running a fan with a tray of ice in front of it.
  • Not to go all 2020 on you, but have a plan for what you’ll do if you’re stuck indoors for days (or weeks) on end. That might mean upgrading your home gym, or stocking up on surprise activities to keep kids engaged.
  • Know where you can go to access cleaner air when it’s needed, such as a local library, shopping mall or community centre.

Have an outdoor survival plan

Sometimes you need to go outside, regardless of the air quality. But that doesn’t mean you have to breathe in all that smoke. There are ways to improve the situation:

  • Reduce strenuous activity. The harder you’re breathing, the more pollutants you’re taking in. Take it easy and take breaks. Think about walking instead of running, and going out for less time than usual.
  • If you work outdoors, speak with your employer about strategies to limit your exposure to smoke.
  • Wear an N95 or similar mask or respirator to block fine particulate matter from entering your lungs. The BCCDC has guidelines on which masks are best—unfortunately, surgical and cloth masks don’t make the cut. Ensure your mask fits and is clean and dry.
  • If you use rescue medication like an inhaler for asthma, always bring it with you and ensure that it doesn’t need a refill.
  • Pack extra water, and drink it often.
  • If you drive, check your car’s air filters, and change them if needed. Ask your mechanic or car dealer how frequently you should change these filters.

Build a healthier community

“Exposure to these wildfire events can have very visible mental health impacts,” says Schwandt. It’s bad enough dealing with being stuck inside. Pairing that with anxiety about the future is a one-two punch.

The smoke situation sucks, but one proven way to make yourself feel better about it is to do something, Schwandt says. However, this doesn’t mean carrying the entire burden of climate change on your shoulders. “We also need high-level action from institutions and from decision makers,” he adds.


Once your own home is sorted, think about ways to support your community: those who are unhoused or live in lower-quality housing, those who have to be outdoors and those who spend time in community-owned buildings like schools. Some things to consider:

  • Ask your council member and other political representatives what they are doing to make sure everyone has access to healthier air. What rules and guidelines are there for air quality in new buildings in your region, and how should older buildings be retrofitted? How are workers being protected, whether they work indoors or outdoors? Can everyone who needs it access community spaces for cooling and a break from the smoke?
  • Ask the leadership at your community centre, your kids’ school or your mom’s long-term care facility whether they have air conditioning and good air filtration. If they don't, ask whom you should speak to about rectifying this, and what contingency plans are in place until this is rectified.
  • Find out if your region has guidelines for when to alter or cancel outdoor activities during times of poor air quality, and look for ways to improve them. For instance, kids’ sporting events such as baseball games might be postponed or modified when the air quality reaches a certain threshold, and outdoor ticketed events like concerts might be required to allow refunds when the air quality is extremely poor.

Plan now, relax later


All of this might seem like a lot of work and fuss, especially if you live in a region where smoke hasn’t been the summer norm. Unfortunately, those norms are changing—and it’s better to be prepared now than to face out-of-stock air purifiers when you need them.

“This is not something that will just happen this year or next year,” says Yao. “We are expecting it to stay. So it’s always good to have a plan.”

Originally published June 2023; updated May 2024.


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