The Comox Valley has a dirty little secret, and we’ve only recently begun to acknowledge it. The prevalence of wood stoves has made our air quality one of the worst in British Columbia.
It’s estimated that more than a third of Comox Valley households have some type of wood-burning appliance that gets fired up in the fall and then idles all day long, week after week for the next five or six months. And they cause more pollution and risks to public health than any other heat source.
For many, wood burning is part of the northern culture, a lingering nostalgia for living self-sufficiently off the land or a childhood memory of the coziness of gathering around a wood stove. It’s a logger’s ritual of gathering, chopping and stacking wood.
But for others, wood smoke is a nightmare that causes respiratory diseases and increases the risk of heart attacks. It means spending money on air purifiers and medications, or losing money from taking sick time off work.
Comox Valley air quality was among the province’s top 10 worst for fine particulate matter (called PM2.5) for the last six years in a row, according to the BC Lung Association. Courtenay was the only one of 13 communities in the Georgia Strait Air Zone that failed to meet Canadian standards for PM2.5.
The Comox Valley regularly has three or four multi-day air quality advisories every winter, while Vancouver might have one and more often none.
“One only has to drive around older neighborhoods or low-lying areas in the winter, especially in the evening, to see that there is a lot of smoke coming from wood stoves,” says Jennell Ellis, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley.
Comox Valley municipalities have started to address the problem.
Cumberland has banned the installation of wood burning appliances — stove and fireplaces — in all new construction. The Comox Valley Regional District has offered incentives to upgrade old, uncertified wood stoves to cleaner, healthier options. Courtenay Council passed a regulation last winter about moving in this direction (low interest loans, not incentives), but it is not in place.
The Town of Comox has taken no action on wood stoves yet. But Mayor-Elect Russ Arnott announced at an air quality information session this week that he expects that to “change in the next three months.”
“I’m hoping to have it brought up quite soon after the new council comes together,” Arnott told Decafnation after the meeting. “My feeling is that this council will want to act on it … So, while I don’t have consensus at this time I’m confident we can work something out.”
Read more at Decafnation.