Seniors smoked out by Site C

Burning to end in next few weeks, BC Hydro says

Seniors living at Old Fort say controlled burning at Site C is smoking out the valley and posing a heightened respiratory risk for those living there amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly 60, resident Yvon King has lived in Old Fort for more than 30 years, and strongly objects to the burning. She's concerned for seniors who live in the riverside community two kilometres downstream of the dam construction zone, and even the returning geese are being choked out, she said.

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“It woke me up at 2:30 in the morning. What’s that smell? There’s no good reason for this. Do the people in Old Fort not matter? They should get chippers and chip it all,” King said Friday. “It’s worse than the worst forest fires we’ve had in the last few years."

The Ministry of Environment has imposed burn restrictions in Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Hudson's Hope, and Chetwynd until April 15, saying poor air quality caused by burning could heighten the risk of COVID-19 infections.

Under the ministry's March 26 order, no new open burns may be started and no new materials can be added to existing fires. "Air pollution increases susceptibility to respiratory viral infections by decreasing immune function" the ministry said.

Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Hudson's Hope, and Chetwynd are deemed to be high smoke sensitivity zones, but most of the Site C construction area appears to be exempt from the ministry's order.

Crews are continuing to clear trees in the Peace River valley for the future Site C reservoir, and BC Hydro says its burning program will continue with modifications "to ensure no piles are ignited within any ‘high sensitivity zone’."

“The smoke that was experienced in the valley [Friday] morning was the result of piles which were ignited yesterday within appropriate burn windows,” Conway said, adding that several days of good venting were expected.

All merchantable trees that are cleared are hauled to local mills, and any debris is either removed, burned, bucked, chipped, or mulched, Conway said. 

No new piles have been lit and venting conditions should dissipate the smoke in the valley, Conway said.

“We will soon be finishing up our clearing and burning activities for the season within the next few weeks,” he said.

Both age 65, Old Fort residents Milo and Linda Ross are also concerned about the burning, and question the wisdom in exempting BC Hydro from provincial restrictions. They usually leave home to run errands whenever smoke settles in the valley.

“Fortunately we don’t have respiratory issues, but there are seniors here who do. It is a hardship,” said Linda Ross.

Email reporter Tom Summer at tsummer@ahnfsj.ca.

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