Wildfire Smoke: How to Stay Safe and Healthy

There have been so many fires in western Canada this summer, hitting nearly every province and territory. As I write, some of the fires are still raging. These fires have been devastating for the communities nearby, displacing many and causing tremendous loss. But as we all know by this point, the effects of wildfires are wide-ranging, as the smoke generated gets carried by wind currents all across Canada and the United States. Where I live, in Wainwright, we have luckily not been close to any of the fires, but like many in Alberta, we have felt the effects of the fires over many smoky days.

Smoke from wildfires has become a major source of air pollution for communities across Canada, and it’s something that unfortunately is becoming more and more common. Decades ago, seeing the sky turn grey and featureless with smoke from a far-away fire would be an exceptional event. Now, it’s so common that there are even icons for smoke-filled days in our weather reports. Between 1981 and 2010, Environment Canada reported an average of 14 smoke hours in Edmonton per year. In 2023, Edmonton recorded 244 smoke hours while Calgary has recorded 464.[1]

Apart from these smoky days being a bit drab and smelly, they also pose a major health concern; as the air quality plummets, it can become dangerous to spend too much time outside. Seniors have an especially high risk of developing health issues due to poor air quality.

Remain mindful of the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), which can be accessed through most weather reporting services. Even if the air doesn’t seem that bad visually, it could be worse than you think. On days where the AQHI indicates a moderate to high risk, do your best to stay indoors, and keep your windows closed. We all know that going for a walk can be good for your health, but on a smoky day, a walk can be worse for you than no walk at all. Try to meet your fitness goals in other ways, like at-home workouts or at an indoor gym in your community. If you experience dizziness, chest pain, coughing, or shortness of breath, don’t ignore it, as it may be a sign that the smoke is affecting you.[2]

Thankfully, as we head into colder seasons, the province should get a reprieve from the fires. But if the last few years indicate a trend, we can expect them to be back next summer.

I wish a speedy recovery and return to normal to those communities that have been affected by the fires, and to all who are living in smoky areas, I encourage you to practice caution, and remain mindful of the air quality for the rest of autumn.

-Erika Foley, Wellness Committee Member

[1] CBC News

[2] Government of Canada