Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires around the world, with Canada being particularly vulnerable to this hazard. The 2021 wildfire season started early, propelled by the recent heat dome experienced across the country, with the subsequent impact of wildfire smoke on Outward Bound Canada (OBC) participants and staff who spend long periods of time outdoors.
Who is At Risk?
Although nobody is immune to the effects of wildfire smoke, some people will be affected more than others due to pre-existing health conditions, such as respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular conditions, and chronic illnesses. People recovering from COVID-19 may also be more susceptible to wildfire smoke due to compromised lung function.
Additionally, people who work in the outdoors and/or partake in strenuous outdoor activities are considered more vulnerable to wildfire smoke. For this reason, OBC uses a conservative approach to managing these risks.
The Air Quality Health Index
OBC uses the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) to determine the suitability of a specific location for outdoor programs. This tool is widely utilized as a benchmark to assess the risk level of the smoke generated by wildfires. The AQHI is calculated by determining the presence of common pollutants in the air: Ozone at the ground level, Particulate Matter and Nitrogen Dioxide.
The AQHI Scale:
The Federal Government provides public guidance in relation to outdoor activities, based on the risk level determined by the AQHI and the impacted population:
Low Risk (1-3): Enjoy outdoor activities as usual.
Moderate Risk (4-6): Consider reducing or rescheduling strenuous outdoor activities if experiencing symptoms.
High Risk (7-10): Reduce or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities
Very High Risk (10+): Avoid strenuous activities outdoors
Outward Bound Canada’s Policy on Wildfire Smoke
OBC monitors the AQHI surrounding its course locations to determine the appropriate response. If, prior to a program, the AQHI is determined to be:
Low Risk (1-3): The course will take place as scheduled.
Moderate Risk (4-6): The course will take place as scheduled. Additional consideration will be placed into the route to facilitate reducing physical activity if participants develop symptoms associated with smoke inhalation.
High Risk (7-10): Participants will be contacted to be made aware of the heightened risks of wildfire smoke during their course. Course logistics will be reviewed including the location of the program and the intended route. If logistically possible, the program will be relocated or the distanced travelled during the course will be reduced to avoid ongoing strenuous activity.
Very High Risk (10+): The course will be moved to a new location, rescheduled, or canceled.
Please note that, even in an area that is relatively close to wildfire, the air quality can vary considerable over the space of several days. It is common for an area to have an AQHI of 10 one day, and 3 the next day. For this reason, we monitor the AQHI of our course areas daily, and make determinations based on multi-day trends. For example, if the forecast is for one day of AQHI 10, but most of the days on course are in the 3 to 5 range, we are unlikely to cancel or reschedule that course. If, however, the forecast is for three or more days of AQHI 10, we will strongly consider cancelling or rescheduling that course.
Communicating Risks with Cohorts are in the Field
Each group that travels in the backcountry has 2 modes of communication: A satellite phone and an In Reach device (2-way satellite texting and tracking device).
These devices allow us to track the exact location of each program and share relevant updates with them. Because AQHI is monitored in urban locations, each cohort’s experience with wildfire smoke may vary from the reported AQHI rating. Frequent communication with cohorts allows us to adequately monitor the risk of wildfire smoke and respond quickly and effectively. If a course experiences an estimated AQHI of 10+ for more than one day, we will remove that course from the field.
If you have any questions about OBC’s Wildfire Policy, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.