Rich Szasz was all set to execute a soft launch of his company’s air filtration masks this month in China.

Two and half years of work had gone into the Kitchener startup’s masks, which it hoped to sell to customers worried about air pollution in the Asian country and other parts of that region.

Then wild fires erupted in the B.C. interior.

As residents scrambled from their homes and a massive evacuation unfolded, Szasz and his partner Peter Whitby, co-founders of O2 Canada, realized they were in a great position to help.

In mid-July Szasz hopped on a plane to China where he visited the company’s manufacturing facility. There he arranged to speed up the production and packaging of the masks so they could be shipped as soon as possible to the western province.

The first 250 masks arrived last week. O2 is distributing them for free to Salvation Army workers, front-line staff, helicopter pilots, and residents with breathing problems in the areas of Kelowna, Kamloops, and Cache Creek.

A further 1,000 masks arrived this week. O2 can’t afford to give away those masks but is hoping to distribute as many as possible free of charge using a crowd-funding campaign on Go Fund Me.

It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind for Szasz who flew home after two and half weeks in China, then got on another plane to B.C. two days later. He spent the long weekend in the fire zone making sure the masks were distributed properly.

“We thought, what an amazing opportunity to help people at home,” he said in a phone interview.

The reaction of the people in B.C. has been incredible, he said.

“Everybody who put a mask on, there was just a big sigh of relief. One lady has been wearing one ever since. She said it changed her world.”

O2’s masks are more effective than a typical air filtration device because they have a tighter seal made of high-end silicone, Szasz explained. It hugs the face so all the air is forced through the filter.

In addition, the mask contains an electrostatic charge, which is highly effective in purifying the air, he noted.

The mask was designed and built with the help of engineers at SnapPea Design, a Waterloo company made up of former engineers at BlackBerry, Szasz said. It went through extensive testing at the air pollution research innovation lab at the University of Waterloo.

Even then, the company kept tweaking and improving the device.

“We’re on iteration number 20,” he said.

Making air filtration masks was not something Szasz and Whitby set out to do when they started their working careers.

Szasz launched his career in the property-management business in Waterloo Region. As part of that job, he began importing furniture from China. When he decided to visit the factory in China where the furniture was being made, Whitby begged him to take him along.

While there, the two were stunned by the terrible air quality. Szasz had worn a lot of masks in the construction business. He felt they were poorly made. He also considered himself an entrepreneur.

Say hello to O2 Canada.

At the moment the company is a lean operation with just Szasz and Whitby on the payroll. O2 is run out of an office on Gaukel Street in Kitchener.

Szasz is flying out to Kelowna on Friday to ensure the latest shipment of O2 masks gets into the right hands.

The company was able to expedite the shipments from China by putting them in bags instead of boxes, he said.

“We did a creative switch on the packaging.”