Smoke and fire all around us
Canada is deep in a wildfire problem
2023 has been a brutal year for Canada for its wildfire and smoke impact on residents. Home to hundreds of species, the forest blanket has been priceless for generations. As the world starts to respond to climate change, it is important to note that for a continent like North America, “temperatures will continue to rise, […] and in general it would be drier,” according to Emily Fischer, Climate Scientist, Colorado State University, in the Across the Sky Podcast. “Just that alone will facilitate more periods of time where large fires could occur,” said Fischer.
Wildfires are large, uncontrolled fires that happen in forests, grasslands, or other natural areas. Anything can trigger a wildfire – from a lightning strike to human activities, they are very sensitive. They spread very quickly and are destructive in nature. Being out of control, they emit smoke which can be harmful to breathing. As per the Government of Canada website, the country has experienced an “unprecedented” number of wildfires this year. As of June 19, 2023, 2,619 fires had been reported nationally with an estimated 5.3 million hectares burned, 15 times larger than the ten-year average for the time. Additionally, 12 provinces and territories had been affected by wildfires.
According to IQAir.com and reported on by the Guardian, “Toronto and New York have been ranked as the most polluted urban areas affected by Canada’s wildfires.” People of all ages are affected health-wise due to this rising smoke caused by wildfires. But, according to Health Canada, seniors, pregnant individuals, people who smoke, infants and young children, people who work outdoors or are involved with strenuous outdoor exercise, and those with pre-existing illness or chronic health conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and lung or heart conditions face higher risk of health problems following exposure to wildfire smoke.
The northern part of the nation has been facing difficulties recovering from these wildfires. The air quality index in Fort Smith, North West Territories was observed as 10+, a number that “skyrocketed past the top of the reference ranges,” according to Dr. Nicole Redvers, Associate Professor for the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at The University of Western Ontario, an expert on the impact of forest fires on Indigenous communities in the Decibel podcast by the Globe and Mail.
“It’s not necessarily about the visibility of the smoke, it’s the amount of particulates that are in the air because that tends to have the greatest impact on the health and well-being of the communities,” said Redvers on the root cause of the health-impacts of the smoke from the wildfires. Lack of planning and strategic decisions are also responsible for the inability to curtail the spread of wildfires. “We have very little planning in place because of a lack of resources to be able to do that. […] We’ve seen fires that have occurred where there’s been a delay in fire capacity being able to be mobilized to the community because the firefighters were busy on other fires.” Reconciliation is not just a goal but an ongoing journey to build bridges and stay united, impacting all areas of decision-making including steps and policies involving wildfire control and its impacts.
Climate change has not only resulted in wildfires but also floods, melting of permafrost, and extreme heat that has caused a global health impact on people. There have been various strategies that people have come up with in order to protect oneself from its impact due the direct threat of engulfment by the fire, rather than exposure to smoke. “Based on the data from about 1980 to 2021 is that 2 per cent of smoke-related evacuations are for non-Indigenous communities which means 98 per cent of the smoke related evacuations are First Nations communities, so clearly there’s a heavy burden on Indigenous communities dealing with smoke-related events,” said Redvers.
The Government of Canada continues attempts to grow its resource accessibility to all communities in the nation. Mentioned as the worst-ever season in 2023, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “There are hundreds of armed forces members now deployed. Additionally, the Canadian Armed Forces are helping with everything from delivering food and supplies to people in Mingaine, Quebec to providing logistics support for water bombers at CFB Greenwood.” There is still room for improvement in planning to handle this uprising of wildfires. Communities across the nation face disruption during work travels and due to lack of visibility, are victim to accidents on roads.
Health Canada advises that milder but more common symptoms of smoke exposure and inhalation include headaches, mild coughing, runny noses, production of phlegm, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. However, more serious symptoms can include dizziness, chest pains, severe coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing and asthma attacks, as well as heart palpitations. In some cases, such symptoms can devolve into heart attacks, strokes, and even premature death.
Health care providers should be immediately consulted in the case of severe symptoms, or call 911 in the case of a health emergency. It has also been mentioned that during wildfire smoke events, it is advised to drink lots of water, avoid outdoor exercises that cause shortness of breath, avoid going outside in the sun, take cool showers, and spray oneself with water bottle or wear an article of damp clothing to cool the body. Masking outdoors is also an effective way to protect oneself from the smoke.
Addressing these challenges often involves policy changes and overall community collaboration between federal and provincial governments. Public cooperation and engagement are also essential in the decision-making of these policies which can be done through voicing opinions, being more aware of the policies designed, and following guidelines laid out by specialists and health care providers. Acknowledging these challenges is the first step in the journey to striving for an environmentally sustainable Canada. The diverse workforce and mix of cultures could come together and pave the way to a healthier and safer country to live in. With these challenges, Canada possesses immense potential as well as room for growth and improvement. As a potential beacon of hope falls upon the land, Canada would be in the limelight amidst other nations.