Smoke over Yellowknife on August 7, 2023. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
We now live in a world where the act of being outside for any length of time is fundamentally unhealthy. It’s more than a little miserable. We hope you’re doing OK.
If you’re anything like us, you spend a lot of time wondering when the wildfire smoke will clear from the Northwest Territories, even for a little while, to give us a clear shot at some oxygen.
Thursday morning was especially brutal for various NWT communities.
As of 8am on Thursday, Yellowknife, Inuvik, Tsiigehtchic, Tulita, Whatì, Behchokǫ̀ and Fort Resolution all had air quality ratings that were at the very bottom “emergency conditions” end of the scale.
That means avoiding exposure if you can, and certainly avoiding strenuous outdoor activity if at all possible, no matter your age or physical condition.
For some communities, it’s been that way for days.
Inuvik hasn’t had a day of reasonably healthy air quality since July 26. Yellowknife hasn’t put together a week of acceptable air since mid-June.
Is there an end to this in sight? There are two questions there – when will the fires end, and when will the smoke move off – and they’re both difficult to answer.
Let’s start with the smoke.
There are smoke forecasts available, and we spend a lot of time checking on those to see how the smoke is likely to behave over the coming days.
Things have now reached the point where if you know one community is set to be smoke-free for the weekend but another has continually clogged air, you might feasibly make the trip.
Firesmoke is the forecast website that many people already know.
According to operator BlueSky Canada, Firesmoke is “considered experimental because it is produced by a modelling system that is an ongoing research project and subject to uncertainties in fire data and emissions, weather forecasts, and smoke dispersion.”
Environment and Climate Change Canada has a similar service called FireWork. Twice a day, FireWork is updated with smoke forecasts that indicate what to expect.
Firesmoke and FireWork do approximately the same thing, and each provide three-day forecasts. You can also get written summaries from the ECCC website for four NWT communities: Yellowknife, Norman Wells, Inuvik and Fort Smith.
At the moment, trying to forecast smoke any further out than that is difficult.
Predicting what happens to smoke is hard because you have all the usual uncertainties of weather conditions like wind and rain (our weather forecasts still aren’t always entirely accurate, even though they’re improving all the time), plus the bigger uncertainty of wildfire behaviour – and whether new fires will start, which obviously can’t be easily captured in a forecast system. We don’t know ahead of time exactly where lightning will strike or when a spark will come off an ATV.
Real-time air quality websites like PurpleAir – whose sensors the NWT government just installed in a range of communities, and whose measurements you can track on our own air quality page – currently don’t come with their own forecasts, but they’re good for knowing exactly how bad the air is outside before you leave home. You can use our weather page to examine how the wind is expected to change, which can be a good indicator of what the smoke will do.
The forecast for most of the NWT is not great for the next three days. Yellowknife is looking at a couple of overnight pockets of clear air but really not a lot, while the only real relief for Inuvik residents might be heading northeast toward Tuk, where the air is forecast to be clear on Friday.
As for how long the fire season will last… bad news.
Environment minister Shane Thompson has already said he’s been told to expect at least another month or two.
The number of active fires in the NWT has done nothing but grow since June 16 and is still growing, to 226 as of Thursday. In other seasons, the number of active fires would be expected to peak much earlier in the year and the territory would be well into the downswing by now, but that’s not the case in 2023.
For August and September, Natural Resources Canada says the forecast wildfire season severity remains “above average” for almost all of the NWT – and “well above average” for August around Inuvik or east of Great Bear Lake. More than half of the Yukon and NWT entered August classified as at least “abnormally dry.”
Last year, the territory’s wildfire season – unusually – kept running well into October. So far, the signs this year are not particularly encouraging that 2023 will be any different, though weather conditions in the long term, beyond what we’re capable of forecasting, could change that.