Every community in the Northwest Territories faced smoky conditions from wildfires at some point this summer. In many cases, the smoke’s duration broke records.
Environment and Climate Change Canada tracks what it calls smoke hours, when smoke reduces visibility to roughly 9.7 kilometres or less for an hour.
Jesse Wagar, a warning preparedness meteorologist at the federal department, said the number of smoke hours recorded between May and September this year set records in Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River and Inuvik.
“This year was absolutely off the charts,” she said.
Wildfires have burned more than 4.1 million hectares across the NWT since May and some are still burning. The previous record was 3.4 million hectares, set in 2014.
Experts say exposure to wildfire smoke can have both short and long-term health consequences, but there are measures people can take to protect themselves.
According to Health Canada, common short-term symptoms of smoke exposure include headaches, a mild cough, sore and watery eyes, and irritation of the nose, throat and sinus.
More seriously, a study of the NWT’s 2014 wildfire season – the smokiest in most residents’ lifetimes before 2023 hit – found emergency room visits doubled for asthma and increased by 57 percent for pneumonia. Distribution of salbutamol, a medication used to relieve symptoms of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, increased by 48 percent that year compared to 2012 and 2013.
Wildfires growing faster than research
Dr Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Yellowknife and a clinical associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, studies the health effects of climate change.
Howard said the long-term impacts of wildfire smoke exposure are not well known, but current research suggests it could cause serious health issues.
She said, for example, some studies have linked smoke exposure with reduced lung function in children. A study on children in Indonesia, which she said has not been replicated, found those exposed to air pollution prenatally did not grow to be as tall as expected by the time they were in their late teens. One Canadian study found long-term exposure to wildfires could increase the risk of lung cancer and brain tumours, but the same study asserted that more research is needed.
“Wildfires have been getting bad faster than the literature has been keeping up,” Howard said.
“We don’t know what the long-term impacts are, but we have no reason to think that they’re good.”
Pointing to her own research on the NWT’s 2014 wildfires, Howard said prolonged wildfire smoke and poor air quality can also affect mental health. She said people who had an evacuation plan that year, and felt prepared, expressed feeling better than other people interviewed for the study.
“The more we can help people know what to expect – and have the tools and skills they need to enact the plan – the better we can expect people to cope with this from a mental health perspective,” she said.
Prevention is key
Dr Angela Yao, a senior scientist at the BC Centre for Disease Control, said wildfire smoke can be dangerous as it includes a complex mixture of chemicals and fine particles.
That includes PM2.5 – particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter – that can move deep into people’s lungs and bloodstream, Yao said, and cause inflammation.
Yao said reducing wildfire smoke exposure is crucial for preventing negative health impacts: staying inside when it’s smoky and using indoor public spaces that have clean air. Experts also recommend using air purifiers with Hepa filters. If you have to go out into the smoke, wear a well-fitted respirator or multi-layer face mask.
“The key thing, really, is to be prepared for every wildfire season and be prepared with all the tools that we can have to reduce our exposure,” she said.
The territorial government has said it will move to increase the availability of tools to help people cope.
For example, Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola told Cabin Radio the territorial government plans to identify clean air shelters in communities across the NWT and provide access to cheap air purifiers.