Yellowknife's smoky skyline on July 20, 2023. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife came up for air on Saturday morning. Early in the day, the city’s air quality improved to level two on the Air Quality Health Index – “low risk.”
It wasn’t expected to stay there for long, but it marked the first time in a week that air quality in the city has been so good. For 10 of the past 11 days, Yellowknife’s air quality has degraded to a level marked “hazardous.”
Wildfire smoke is driving the dirty air, which has triggered the opening of municipal facilities for free in a bid to give residents some relief. Day after day, residents have woken to a choking, orange-grey haze and an accompanying sense of despair.
The outlook for the week ahead looks better, but the unpredictability of wildfire smoke – the development of new fires can ruin a forecast, and existing fires don’t always behave as expected – means that could change fast.
As of 6am on Saturday, air quality companies PurpleAir and IQAir both rated the air in Yellowknife as “good.” IQAir forecasts worse air quality from Sunday to Tuesday – hovering around the “moderate” level – before a return to good air for Wednesday and Thursday.
Environment Canada expects Saturday to hover between four and seven on the AQHI scale, which runs from one – the best air – to “10-plus,” an open-ended rating that’s considered extremely unhealthy. Yellowknife has spent days at the 10-plus marker, so even air quality of six or seven will feel like a significant improvement.
The Sunday forecast from Environment Canada is worse, descending to an eight or nine rating. Given the unpredictability of air quality, the agency’s forecast only looks two days ahead.
For longtime residents keeping track, the recent spell of unbroken “hazardous” air quality has lasted longer than the smoke the city endured in the summer of 2014.
In late July and early August 2014, Yellowknife only ever suffered at most five straight days of air at the “10-plus” end of the air quality scale. The current streak, after a brief improvement on July 15, is six days and counting.