Air quality in New Westminster, B.C., worse than New Delhi as pier fire adds to wildfire smoke


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Smoke blowing into parts of southern B.C. for the past three days has been so bad it landed Vancouver in the top three spots on a list of major cities that have the worst air quality in the world.

And the smoke from Washington State wildfires keeps coming.

Right now Vancouver sits in second spot, with air quality that’s deemed “unhealthy” at a rating of 160 on the website IQ Air. Vancouver’s air is worse to breath than air in Los Angeles, but not as hazardous as Portland’s rated at 305.

The air quality index is a scale that alerts people to unhealthy levels of pollutants included tiny particulate matter that can be inhaled into the lungs. At levels found in Vancouver, people are urged to shelter indoors, especially given the risk to health from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

And Vancouver isn’t the worst place to breathe in B.C.

On Sunday New Westminster’s waterfront park caught fire spewing more smoke as fire crews sprayed the creosote-fuelled flames that are still smouldering and belching toxins over the Fraser River. 

By Tuesday that made New Westminster’s air quality worse than New Delhi, India, with 21 million resident. It’s worse than Vancouver on Wednesday.

‘Not much more my lungs can take’

Smoke from southern wildfires coupled with the Pier Park fire created a “double whammy,” said Christopher Carlsten, a doctor and professor who heads the University of British Columbia’s respiratory medicine department.

He says he’s never seen the Pacific Northwest — from Oregon to southern B.C. — so smoky for so long.

“I am confident that’s unprecedented,” said Carlsten. “It’s certainly extremely, extremely unusual.”

Air quality is triggering his patients — and probably anybody with underlying respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or a heart conditions.

The ‘Wow Westminster’ public art installation made of shipping containers seen through a smoky haze on Wednesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

For Shelley Watson of New Westminster, the choking smoke and haze was already unbearable.

Then a fire broke out at Pier Park near her home. By Tuesday, Watson was forced to flee the city to calm her raging headache and cough.

“There’s not much more that my lungs can take as far as the toxicity of this smoke,” she said.

Watson runs four fans, two air conditioners with jams towels under the doors — but the acrid smoke continues to seep into her home.

“When [the creosote smell] first hits you are just horrified by how awful it is,” said Watson.

She says in a croaky voice she can barely see the Pattullo Bridge, usually visible out her window.

Sun umbrellas survived the fire on the smouldering pier, with charred sections of wood visible from above. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The headaches and nausea that Watson and others are experiencing is probably because of the petrochemical-fuelled fire, according to Carlsten.

The fire is entrenched in the old pilings under the destroyed pier that are infused with a tar-like substance called creosote that preserves wooden timbers standing in the water.

Creosote preservatives are generally coal tars containing polyaromatic hydrocarbons which can harm the lungs. Prolonged or extreme exposure to smoke from this burning chemical can cause long-term asthma-like symptoms in healthy people — and may also lead to cancer, he said.

Carlsten can’t recall such a thick smoke haze and particulate pollution lasting this long in this province, which usually attracts people to enjoy it’s clean, pine-fresh air.

“This will pass, but it’s crazy how frequent and compounding all these things are,” he said.

Smoke continues to drift above the burned wharf at New Westminster’s Pier Park. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But clear skies are not on the horizon yet. New Westminster’s Fire Chief Tim Armstrong says the Pier Park fire — cause still unknown — may smoulder for weeks.

Environment Canada senior meteorologist Carmen Hartt said a special team is monitoring the toxic plume that is emanating from New Westminster’s waterfront fire. A stagnant air mass and varied winds mean “nobody is really safe from smoke from that fire in any direction,” for kilometres, according to Hartt.

Firefighters work to douse the Westminster Pier Park fire that destroyed sections of the old pier and damaged the “W” shaped Wow Westminster sculpture. Picture taken from the SkyTrain on Sept. 14. (Miles Stoelwinder)

As for the wildfire smoke, there’s a bit of rain — 20 mm or so —  in the forecast leading into the weekend. Along with shifting winds that means the region will get a reprieve from the smoke blowing north from the U.S. wildfires, she said, but it won’t fully disappear until next week.

“Next week it’s looking really good to see another rain event. That should do a lot of good for the air quality,” said Hartt.

Longer term she said that there may be more smoke events in the coming months. Fires from California, through Oregon and Washington States are not under control, and colder weather won’t hit California for months.

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