By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist
A 10 is a number no one likes to see when it comes to air quality – it means the air we breathe contains pollutants that can pose health risks. For much of the summer of 2018, for example, many parts of Alberta experienced smoke-filled air that made it hard to breathe, due to a record-breaking fire season in British Columbia.
As much as we wish for clear skies and clean air year-round, wildfire season officially runs from March through to the end of October in Alberta. The smell of smoke and hazy sights of our city skylines and mountain ranges are telling signs when fires are burning across Western Canada.
Wildfires in Alberta
It is common to see more than 1,000 fires during wildfire season in Alberta, many of which start early in the season, even when snow still covers the ground. As of October 31, 2019, Alberta has recorded 1,003 wildfires in the Forest Protection Area that have burned 883,415 hectares.
“In recent years, we saw bigger, more intense wildfires in the province that led to major impacts on air quality in affected regions and the province at large, for example during the 2016 Horse River Wildfire in Fort McMurray,” says Naomi Tam, Air Quality Specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP). Predictions show that Alberta will continue to see larger wildfires.
Air monitoring of top importance
Working together with Alberta’s Airsheds, air monitoring staff at AEP measure Alberta’s air and report air conditions to the public year-round. “During wildfire season, staff are on stand-by mode to quickly respond to emergency wildfire smoke events. We have several mobile analyzers ready to be moved across the province to measure smoke conditions,” says Marty Collins, Air Monitoring Manager with AEP.
Data from mobile analyzers and over 70 air monitoring stations permanently located across Alberta are used to inform the public, wildland firefighters, and the Ministry of Health about health risks stemming from wildfire smoke.
Improving wildfire smoke monitoring
“Air scientists at AEP are working to improve wildfire smoke monitoring, air quality forecasting and reporting to the public,” says Casandra Brown, Air Quality Specialist with AEP.
For example, in partnership with the University of Alberta, AEP is developing solar-powered micro-stations that could support early detection of forest fire smoke and fill gaps in Alberta’s existing air monitoring network.
In May 2019, AEP in collaboration with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and Natural Resources Canada, deployed these portable, low-cost micro-sensors for the first time to monitor controlled burns at a remote forest location.
How Albertans stay informed on air quality
The AQHI is reported on a 10-point coloured scale, where lower AQHI numbers in blue indicate low heath risk while higher numbers in red indicate high risk. All data is updated hourly.
An AQHI of 7 or higher will prompt air quality advisories, for example, when wildfire smoke causes poor air quality.
More information on wildfires in Alberta can be found at wildfire.alberta.ca.
More details on air quality events related to wildfire smoke can found at environmentalmonitoring.alberta.ca
Explore more recent publications on air quality during the Horse River Wildfire in the Fort McMurray area:
- Tam, N. and Adams, C. 2019. Characterization of Air Quality During the 2016 Horse River Wildfire using Permanent and Portable Monitoring. Ministry of Environment and Parks. ISBN: 978-1-4601-4477-0.
- Adams, C., McLinden, C. A., Shephard, M. W., Dickson, N., Dammers, E., Chen, J., Makar, P., Cady-Pereira, K. E., Tam, N., Kharol, S. K., Lamsal, L. N., and Krotvok, N. 2019. Satellite-derived emissions of carbon monoxide, ammonia, and nitrogen dioxide from the 2016 Horse River wildfire in the Fort McMurray area. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 19, 2577-2599.
- Landis, M. S., Edgerton, E. S., White, E. M., Wentowrth, G. R., Sullivan, A. P., Dillner, A. M. 2018. The impact of the 2016 Fort McMurray Horse River Wildfire on ambient air pollution levels in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region, Alberta, Canada. Science of the Total Environment, 618, 1665–1676.
- Wentworth, G. R., Aklilu, Y., Landis, M. S., and Hsu Y-M. 2018. Impacts of a large boreal wildfire on ground level atmospheric concentrations of PAHs, VOCs and ozone. Atmospheric Environment, 178, 19–30.
Are you a policy practitioner interested in learnings from recent air monitoring studies? See the Briefing for Policy Practitioners