Navigating Bonfire Smoke in Community Spaces

Last updated: November 2023

Last summer, a new market space opened up just outside of my town, with a gorgeous rustic vibe and 2 rows of smaller shops from local vendors and restaurants. It is a great community space, hosting farmer's markets from spring through fall, community events, and one time we were there people were even gathered on a hill looking toward a large pond for an auction.

It is a great place to buy local goods and grab some great pastries, coffee, or meals from local folks.

However, it seems like all too often in community spaces, there is one vibe-setting factor that is difficult for me to navigate with asthma: the smoke from burning bonfires in the gathering center of the space.

Where there's fire...

As spring of 2020 hit, and outdoors became the only place to gather because of COVID and COVID public health orders, I began spending more time outside in local parks, 6 feet apart from my friends. We have many pictures together, masks on, as we sat or stood far apart to avoid the watchful eye of enforcement folks patrolling the park.

As more became known about COVID and the safety of being distanced but outdoors, we took our masks off. Having spent the prior months wearing an N95-equivalent mask, I had not noticed how smoky many of the parks and community spaces had been. I would take my mask off, only to discover the smoky air from people having bonfires from a distance, and simply put the mask straight back on! Hey, why risk the smoke exposure with my asthma when I had an easy way to deal with it right at hand?

Changing spaces because of bonfire smoke exposure

Often, seating options at parks and community spaces are limited, so it can be difficult to just switch your spot - even if it is mid-day on a weekday, I've discovered! When we went to the market with the central fire burning for lunch one Friday at a very slow time, I removed my mask after coming outside to realize it was going to be tricky to find a less smoky place to sit!

We managed that particular day, so the main issue I had was being covered in powdered sugar from the "doe tails" bite-sized spinoff of the legendary Canadian pastry treat Beaver Tails, but when seating is limited, it is often not possible to simply move!

Another day, we went to a winter event at a large local market being held on the frozen river. Often fires are set up on the river during community events, or even simply just alongside special winter outdoor dining options, making it difficult for me to even want to go attempt skating on the river or attend entertainment events, as I have been caught before!

Smoke from these types of fires is an annoying challenge to navigate as it seems more and more community spaces are burning fires for the atmosphere and vibes. This is, in itself, interesting to me since, as a society, we have rightly done so much to be smoke-free when it comes to cigarettes, cannabis, and vapes in many places, but we do not pay the same attention when it comes to another major source of smoke and one that may burn for hours on end in our community spaces!

Just like forest fires or secondhand cigarette smoke exposure, these fires are also sources of air pollution and are linked to health issues, not only for people with lung diseases, like asthma, but also for babies and children, older adults, people with heart conditions, and more.1

Navigating community bonfire smoke with asthma

At the park or community market events, unfortunately avoiding the smoke is not always an option if we want to attend these spaces! Contacting the venue ahead of time to ask if fires are burning may be an option at some markets, and you may be able to ask if there are times when fires are not burning so you can attend.

I have found that the best option for me is to keep my distance as much as possible and wear a high-quality mask if I just want to enjoy time with people and stick with the plans we have made when fires do happen to pop up.

As I have spent a lot more time doing outdoor visits to avoid COVID over the last 3+ years, masks have simply become another tool in my arsenal. Depending on the level of smoke, pre-medicating with my rescue inhaler is also an option I have used at times that has been helpful, and may be worth talking with your asthma care team about trying, too!

If you enjoy the warmth of a nice fire but not the smoke, another solution my aunt found is a propane fire pit! Summer or winter, we gather in her back yard to enjoy the warmth and atmosphere of a backyard fire... but with none of the smoke!

How do you navigate smoky community spaces with asthma?

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