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How I Manage Wildfire Season With "Pre-Existing Health Conditions"

It is the worst wildfire season in history.

That’s the rhetoric I keep hearing from the media.

In all fairness, it may be so on a national or continental scale, but unfortunately it is becoming somewhat of the summer norm for my hometown and our region.

I live in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada, an epicenter for summer wildfires. This is our fourth major fire season in the past 7 years. Now, with a new fire burning about 10 km (or about 6 miles) from City limits, we’re in the midst of it once again.

As Auldyn recently wrote, there is absolutely a link between AxSpa flare-ups and wildfire smoke. So, to piggyback off her well-written post, I thought I’d share my experiences gained over the recent few years both before and since my diagnosis.

Take the health risk seriously

Poor air quality will impact your health. The health authorities’ warnings often seem to fall on deaf ears, but for those of us living with AxSpA who fall under the commonly used labels of “pre-existing health conditions” or “sensitive group,” I believe it is imperative we take the risk of wildfire smoke seriously.

In prior summers, I also failed to recognize the risk that smoke presents and would be frustrated to find myself sick in bed after spending time outdoors whereas others around me were less affected.

So, I have learned to manage my own personal risk. I strongly recommend finding a trustworthy air quality metric and setting your own limits as to when it is safe to be outside and when it’s time to hunker down. Admittedly, I am much more cautious than most others.

Where I live, we have two air quality metrics I will refer to. The Canadian government officially recognizes the Air Quality Health Index (or AQHI). I use this metric less frequently as I find it ineffective. It uses a scale from 1-10 of which we regularly exceed 10 (I think at our worst we were a 21/10), and it gets updated at most once per hour from only one monitoring point in the region. When I use this scale, 7 and higher is an absolute no-go for heading outdoors.

By contrast, I prefer to trust the PM 2.5 AQI scale, which to my understanding is also much more widely used in the USA, and now has multiple online sources such as Purple Air or IQAir which provide real-time updates using crowdsources sensors on an interactive map. Fortunately, these sensors are also widespread around my city. This scale does not have a maximum that gets regularly surpassed, but rather uses a color-coded increasing scale with green or 0-50 being good quality and once you hit dark purple it is extreme risk territory. I have seen it climb above 600 at our worst, yikes! Using this scale, 150 (red) is my stay-inside limit and 100 (orange) is the limit where I’ll stop doing vigorous outdoor exercise.

Find filtered air

As recommended by health authorities, I find the best way to cope is to avoid being outdoors and stay in filtered air. Any public space using air condition is a safe bet. I like to try and take alternate methods of transportation, but in smoky times A/C in the car using the air recirculation feature is the only way I get around.

When I didn’t have an A/C unit in my home, I purchased a portable air purifier, and it works wonders. Even now with filtered air, I will turn it on to enhance the air quality inside.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid going outside so I have a few minor guidelines for that as well.

Firstly, limit exertion. The lawn can grow longer until the smoke clears, so can the bike ride or whatever other outdoor activity I love to do that results in heavier breathing. I take exercise indoors until the air quality returns.

Secondly, as lame as it can feel, I use some kind of filtration. During the peak of the pandemic, I’d use a cloth mask because every little bit helps. That summer, we could see the ash floating in the air, and ironically as COVID restrictions lifted, I shifted from wearing a mask indoors to wearing one outdoors. Now, my local health authorities are recommending using the N95 masks, and if the air quality returns to what we had seen in previous summers I will strongly consider purchasing a respirator. I’ll look quite ridiculous, but it’s a lot better than the alternative.

Manage stress

The mental aspect is equally important for me when the smoke socks in. When trapped indoors for weeks on end, it can start to feel like cabin fever in the summer months.

Continuing to participate in destressing activities is extra important during fire season. I usually turn to doing yoga and singing songs with my guitar as my main stress relievers, both of which I can do from the comfort of my living room.

For me, I also overdo our emergency preparedness when fires are within close proximity as I find being ready helps to reduce my stress. This includes ensuring all personal documents are together, vehicles are sufficiently fuelled, and that medications, clothes, devices, and chargers are in their proper place in case we need to pack up and get out in a hurry.

Unfortunately, aggressive wildfire seasons are becoming the new norm. An extreme fire season used to occur every 50 years or so, and now they are happening approximately every other year.

So, for those of us living with those “pre-existing health conditions”, it’s another occasion to learn to adapt.

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