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Air quality reaches harmful levels in many parts of NWT

Haze generated by wildfire smoke from northern Alberta descends over Yellowknife on July 20, 2019
A file photo from 2019 of haze generated by wildfire smoke from northern Alberta descending over Yellowknife. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio


Across the NWT, wildfire smoke is causing harmful levels of particulate matter and significantly affecting air quality.

The office of the Chief Public Health Officer issued a wildfire smoke exposure advisory for Fort Smith, Yellowknife, and the entire North Slave region at 6pm on July 5, and advised anyone experiencing serious symptoms such as wheezing, chest discomfort, or shortness of breath to go to their local hospital or health centre.

While it is difficult to tell which region was the worst-hit on Tuesday, as the NWT only has monitoring stations in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Fort Smith, and Norman Wells, but reports appear to indicate that the city of Yellowknife may have been most affected by smoke.



Between 11am and 1pm in Yellowknife on Tuesday, Environment Canada put the air quality (which in Canada is known as the Air Quality Health Index, or AQIH) at more than 10 — and the index only goes up to 10.

IQAir, which uses data from the NWT Air Quality Monitoring Network, put air quality in Yellowknife at the same time at an AQI (an air quality index measurement used internationally) of 237, the worst in Canada at the time.

A screengrab from Google shows Yellowknife had the worst air quality in the country on July 5.

To put that figure in perspective, cities with some of the worst air quality worldwide typically rank at an AQI of around 150. According to IQAir’s monitoring system, the most dangerous city in the world is currently Lahore, Pakistan, sitting at an AQI of 185.

While warnings around air quality typically focus on children, the elderly, and those with heart and lung conditions, when AQI levels cross 150, everyone begins to experience health effects such as low energy, brain fog, throat irritation, headaches, and shortness of breath.



However, John McKay, an air quality technologist for the GNWT, warns against putting too much stock in these numbers.

“Air quality fluctuates quite dramatically,” he said. “The wind can change and suddenly air quality indexes go from basically nothing to 100, 200. That’s why I recommend checking the Environment Canada forecast, because they will show a more general trend, and they’ll have warnings if you need to be concerned.”

Indeed, Environment Canada did release a special warning for the Yellowknife area in the late afternoon on Tuesday.

From 3-5pm on the same day, Wrigley was warned by ENR that it would be experiencing especially bad air quality due to the close proximity to wildfire FS008.

But as the community doesn’t have a monitoring system in the area, it’s impossible to tell what the AQI levels were during that time.

Kyle Clillie, band manager for Pehdzeh Ki First Nation, expressed concern in a conversation with Cabin Radio Tuesday afternoon.

“We have Elders and young children with breathing problems, and we don’t have the funding to send them out to another community for their safety, we can’t afford to send them to hotels with better air systems in place. The best we can do is say that with heavy smoke in the community is to recommend staying indoors.”

Clillie is updating the PKFN Facebook page regularly, and for those who don’t use Facebook, he recommends calling the band office at (867) 581-3321.



While air quality levels have since improved, and are expected to remain less severe over the next few days according to Environment Canada, a bulletin issued by ENR warned residents of the NWT that wildfire smoke is to be expected for the “foreseeable future.”

ENR recommends the staying inside, reducing respiratory stressors such as smoking, cooking, and burning candles; staying hydrated; avoiding exercise outside; and running air purifiers.

More information can be found in their Wildfire Smoke Information guide and in the Smoke Exposure from Wildfire: Guidelines for Protecting Community Health and Wellbeing report.