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Wildfire smoke gives Yellowknife ‘summer 2014’ vibes

Yellowknife is seen through an orange glow of wildfire smoke on June 3, 2023. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife is seen through an orange glow of wildfire smoke on June 3, 2023. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio


If you were in Yellowknife nine summers ago, you know 2014 was awful.

If you weren’t here, you’ve probably heard longer-term residents describe it. The creepy orange skies, the choking atmosphere and the sense of impending apocalypse.

That summer, a huge wildfire season – by many measures, the territory’s worst on record – sent day after day of thick smoke into Yellowknife’s atmosphere. The city even opened its fieldhouse for free as a place residents could use to breathe normally and get some exercise.

While most of that happened in August after weeks of steady build-up, this year’s wildfire season has started at an extraordinary pace, and the Yellowknife air in late May and early June has given some residents flashbacks.



We are not at 2014 levels yet – but we’re not far off, and there’s a whole lot of 2023 left to play out.

Here’s a look at the Air Quality Health Index data for 2014 and 2023 so far.



The Air Quality Health Index, or AQHI, is how Canada measures the cleanliness and possible harms of the air you’re breathing. The lower the score, the better. Zero to three is low risk, four to six is moderate risk, seven to 10 is high risk, and then anything above 10 is lumped into a “10-plus” category labelled very high risk. (Theoretically the AQHI keeps going forever as the air worsens, but 10-plus is considered so bad that it’s not worth any more labels above that point.)

There are at least two ways to look at that data: you can either take the average from each day for a sense of how smokey each day’s air was, overall; or you can take the maximum score for each day, to show you how bad things got, even if the worst air quality didn’t linger for long.

Let’s start with daily averages.

This summer is already recording days where the air quality is significantly worse than it was on the equivalent day in 2014, but Yellowknife has not yet experienced any days this summer where the overall air quality, over 24 hours, was as bad as 2014 at its worst.

In 2014, two days in the first week of August were so bad that the average for each entire day was off the top of the chart, at 11. That takes some doing.

But Yellowknifers in 2023 are already experiencing a sour taste of that no-good-very-bad air quality, even if full days aren’t on the same scale.

Here’s a similar graph, this time showing the maximum air quality ratings each day rather than the average.

As this graph shows, Yellowknife in 2023 has already smashed into the roof of the scale – “very high risk” – on three days: May 24, June 2 and June 3. By that point in 2014, Yellowknife hadn’t shifted out of the “low risk” zone.



By the end of August, though, 2014 had brought 16 days of very high-risk air to Yellowknife.

A subsequent study of several NWT communities showed that 2014’s summer had a significant impact on residents’ health.

Health centres reported a 48-percent increase in distribution of salbutamol, a medication given to ease breathing, compared to previous summers. One community pharmacy ran out of supplies.

The poor air quality was associated with an 11-percent increase in asthma-related emergency room visits, a six-percent increase in pneumonia-related emergency room visits, and an 11-percent increase in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease-related hospital admissions.

At primary care clinics, the study found, “visits for cough and pneumonia doubled in 2014 and clinic visits for asthma increased more than 50 percent compared with earlier years.”

Researchers noted that as Yellowknife residents with sensitive airways are used to the city’s “excellent baseline air quality,” they might not have had medication to help them handle the smoke, which may account in part for the increased number of trips to the emergency room and clinics.

The study also reported that while 76 percent of residents surveyed about that summer remembered announcements asking them to stay inside, only 48 percent actually reduced the time they spent outside.

That might be a lesson for this summer: despite Yellowknife’s many outdoor attractions for warm-weather adventurers, if the air is riddled with smoke, there is a genuine risk to your health – one that was documented in 2014.

For a brief, smokey period early on Saturday, June 3, at least one air quality monitoring website ranked Yellowknife’s air the worst in the world. Keep that in mind the next time you see an orange haze out of the window and are contemplating a lunchtime run.