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Monique Keiran: Wildfire smoke loaded with nasty stuff

For a week, Nature Boy gasped and panted under dense skies. He flopped from sweaty seat to shade-enshrouded room in search of hints of coolness.

For a week, Nature Boy gasped and panted under dense skies. He flopped from sweaty seat to shade-enshrouded room in search of hints of coolness. He marvelled at a sun that glowed orange throughout the day and lit everything with a buttery, evening light at midday.

The hot weather over the West Coast sent many Victorians rushing to stake out blanket-sized patches of beach early in the morning. Others scurried into the welcome relief of air-conditioned offices. As for Nature Boy, he took to spending his afternoons in cool, dark cinemas.

The system that brought the weather also held Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland in a form of hot smoker. It suffused the coast in the fumes of the region’s wildfires.

In Vancouver, the outlook was labelled “Martian skies.”

The recent Big Smoke gave us a taste and whiff of our own coastal rainforests going up in flames, here, in a place normally known for clean air and fresh ocean breezes.

With our itchy eyes and scratchy throats, we felt the chemical and particulate ghosts of thousands of trees being partially cremated at Dog Mountain, Sechelt Inlet, Port Hardy and in other wildfires in the region.

Since April 1, when the 2015 fire season started, 125 forest fires have burned more than 20,000 hectares in B.C.’s coastal region. Alaska, Oregon and Washington state experienced the same low-snow winter and parched spring. They report record numbers of their own wildfires this year.

Each fire has pumped large quantities of carbon dioxide and water vapour into the skies over the region.

Wood smoke also contains a complex stew of noxious chemicals. Every kilogram of wood burned releases up to 350 grams of carbon monoxide, 25 grams of methane and 27 grams of volatile organic compounds.

Other ingredients include toluene and other benzenes, formaldehyde, formic acid, methyl chlorides, naphthalene, chlorinated dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and a host of other compounds with scary names.

Some of the chemicals are aromatic, providing that smell so reminiscent of late nights around the campfire or of cooking bacon. Some chemicals are known to cause cancer after repeated exposure.

In addition, a great deal of ash, soot and mould swirl up on the hot winds a forest fire creates. The particles disperse and eventually settle out, sometimes many kilometres away. Ashy remains of burnt B.C. trees dusted my windows, patio and car, and I saw them smear the surface of the Gorge Waterway.

They reminded me of the months following the Mount St. Helens eruption in the 1980s, when the ash fallout extended beyond the prairies and Midwest. Of course, when a volcano blows, it catapults vast amounts of ash, dust and water — as well as sulphur dioxide, bromine, mercury, methane and nitrogen oxide — high into the atmosphere. The materials mix, react and eat holes in the ozone layer. They spread around the globe. They absorb incoming sunlight. They dampen temperatures. They cause increased amounts of rain and snow in the following cool seasons.

Widespread forest fires have less dramatic effect on weather, but they have their own global reach.

After a high-pressure system held all the smoky, bacon-smelling goodness in our eyes, noses and throats, it disappeared.

Except it didn’t.

In recent years, NASA has used its satellites to track smoke from forest fires. In late June and early July, images showed a massive 2,500-kilometre-long river of smoke flowing and swirling along the jet stream from northern Canada deep into the U.S. Other images showed the jet stream zigging northeastward from the B.C.’s south coast to northern Alberta, then zagging southeastward.

When the zigzag shifted westward, it parked the Pacific high-pressure ridge over the south coast. It trapped the smoke from the region’s wildfires for our particulate enjoyment.

When it shifted again, that cap of smoke burst and blew toward Edmonton, where I met up with it again last weekend. At one point, standing on the northern edge of the valley that cuts through the city’s core, I could barely see the buildings across the river through the smoky haze.

And there was, once again, that faint scent of eau de campfire/bacon in the air.

It smelled like home.