What's the Problem?

In the winter, wood smoke often settles in the Comox Valley. The smoke contains harmful fine particulates and other toxins that can have serious health impacts.

Every winter, there are multiple, multi-day air advisories issued for the valley; it is rare for Vancouver to have even one in the winter.

We were in the top 10 worst communities in BC for fine particulates for 6 years in a row according to reports by the BC Lung Association.

And in BC government reports on the Georgia Strait Air Zone, Courtenay is consistently one of the worst of 13 communities studied (in terms of fine particulates), and it consistently fails to meet Canada's standards for fine particulates.

It is time to clean up our air.

"In the winter months, it's really about what's coming out of your chimney.

It's understanding the fact that there is no healthy level of air pollution. And exposure over time does impact chronic disease progression."

Dr. Charmaine Enns
Medical Health Officer
Island Health

What is PM2.5?

Particulate matter (PM) refers to small solid or liquid particles floating in the air. These particles can be made up of different substances, including carbon, sulphur, nitrogen and metal compounds.

PM2.5 refers to fine particles that are less than 2.5 microns in diameter.

Generally, fine particles like PM2.5 are more harmful to health than larger particles because they can move deeper into the lungs and can pass into the bloodstream. For this reason, PM2.5 is linked to more serious health impacts than larger particles.

How tiny is PM2.5?

  • A red blood cell is 4 times wider
  • Pollen is 20 times wider
  • A human hair is 30 times wider.

PM2.5 is so small it can remain in the air for days, or even weeks. Even when we can't see or smell smoke, we might still be exposed to its harmful particles.

How is our air measured?

In 2011, a BC government air monitoring station was set up at Courtenay Elementary School.

The location was chosen based on earlier mobile monitoring research. This research showed central Courtenay was one of many areas in the Comox Valley that had high levels of fine particulates (see the mobile monitoring maps showing pollution in different areas).

The location of the station ensures we are aware when the air quality is poor for thousands of residents in the Valley (picking a site with low pollution levels would have downplayed what people living in more polluted areas were dealing with).

There is also a temporary monitor set up in Cumberland (for winter of 2016/17) and a new mobile monitoring study will be done in early 2017.

See instructions for viewing Courtenay's air monitor readings.

How do we measure up?

Worst of 13

Sources of Smoke

Experts know that the main source of PM 2.5 in the Comox Valley is wood smoke. There is no industrial activity in the Comox Valley and most cars emit tiny amounts of PM2.5.

There are three main sources of wood smoke in the Valley:

  1. Residential wood heat.
  2. Backyard Burning
  3. Open Burning

The first two are the responsibility of local governments. The last one is provincially regulated.

As air knows no boundaries, it is important that all governments work together to address the problem.

For more information, please read our document (PDF), Sources of Wood Smoke in the Comox Valley.

1. Wood Heat

Chimney 1The air monitor readings show that our PM2.5 measurements go up every night, and drop during the day. These readings are a "wood stove" signature according to Earle Plain, the BC Air Quality Meteorologist.

A mobile monitoring study done in the Comox Valley in 2008/09 also showed that the older residential areas had the highest readings for PM2.5. These areas are where many people use wood stoves for heat. (View maps to see results for your neighbourhood, school or workplace).

As this smoke is released right where people live, it can have the greatest impact on neighbours and neighbourhoods.

2. Backyard burning

2016-04-03-cvrd-backyard-kenromaniukBackyard burning can create very localized sources of air pollution. The burning of wet leaves and green branches creates thick smoke that gets into homes and prevents neighbours from using their own yards.

Courtenay and Comox have banned most backyard burning. Cumberland will ban backyard burning (except for recreational fires) in early 2017.

The rest of the Comox Valley Regional District still allows backyard burning.

3. Open Burning

royston-burnLarger fires from land clearing, agricultural burns and forestry slash piles can result in significant amounts of smoke at certain times of year.

During inversions, smoke from all of these larger burns can settle in the Valley.

Currently, these burns are not supposed to release smoke for any longer than 96 consecutive hours. They are also only to be lit when weather "venting" conditions are good.

These burns are regulated by the BC Government's Open Burning Smoke Control Regulations. These regulations are being revised and will become more stringent, particularly for burns closer to populated areas.


  1. thank u for this excellent resource

    I would like to find out more and potentially collaborate with your organisation and work closely to advocate & support efforts to reduce PM2.5 & enhance environmental & air quality

  2. I worked with the Sunshine Coast Clean Air Society for many years. Your website states that efficient wood stoves are not the answer. I agree. However, the issue is trying to change peoples habits. Many people like to enjoy a nice fire. Not everybody cares, or choose not to believe that they are harming themselves and their neighbours. The SCCAS faced a great deal of push back on our BYB and wood heating initiatives. Through the Provincial Government’s wood stove exchange program we were able to change out hundreds of wood stoves and, perhaps more importantly, raise awareness of the harmful effects of PM2.5. Although it wasn’t the answer, it went a long way to cleaner air.

    Personally, I would love to see all wood burning appliances banned. I would also love to see all back yard burning and agricultural and construction burning banned. It won’t happen over night and there are often compromises that need to be made on the journey.

    I wish you success in your efforts.

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