Wild about wildfires

Wildfires are a growing international concern, happening from California to Australia and anywhere in between. Climate change is increasing the length of the fire season and the frequency of fires. In Canada, an average of 6,000 wildfires occur each year, burning a total area of 2.8 million hectares of land. Most of these fires happen in British Columbia, as well as in the boreal forests of the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, but they can have a far-reaching impact throughout the country.

Wildfire smoke contains many different air pollutants, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, methane, and volatile organic compounds. It also contributes to the formation of ozone and other particulate matter. Unlike other air pollution typically found in urban environments, smoke can move in and out of a community rapidly and make the air unsafe very quickly.

Health impacts of wildfire smoke in Canada

Studies show that exposure to wildfire smoke is associated with an increase in respiratory infections and respiratory troubles, including worsening of frequency of symptoms of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, as well as an increase in premature mortality.

Health Canada scientist Carlyn Matz and colleagues from Health Canada and the Meteorological Service of Canada recently conducted a health impact assessment in order to determine the health impacts and the costs associated to wildfires, including medical costs, reduced workplace productivity, pain and suffering, and the impacts of increased mortality risk. Results indicate that between 2013 and 2018, 620 to 2,700 premature deaths per year in Canada, as well as many related health issues, are attributable to wildfire smoke. The health impacts were greatest in the provinces experiencing wildfires, but impacts were noted across other provinces as well. This indicates that the air pollution caused by wildfires can travel long distances and that a large portion of Canadians are exposed to it. This assessment highlights the growing importance of wildfires as a source of air pollution and health impacts in Canada, which are anticipated to increase under climate change. This work has been shared with other Canadian organizations addressing risks from wildfire.


Response and collaboration


Jeff Eyamie has been working since 2008 on implementing the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), a scale designed to help Canadians understand what the air quality around them means to their health. However, after wildfire smoke affected Kelowna in the summer of 2009, the team quickly realized that they needed to improve the AQHI model to communicate the health risks associated with wildfire smoke.

Health Canada and its partners have developed the AQHI+, which modifies the traditional AQHI scale to take into account particles caused specifically by wildfires and communicates it on an hourly basis.

To further protect Canadians from exposure to wildfire smoke, Health Canada also provides an emergency monitoring resource in the case of wildfire. These specialized air sensors are deployed in the affected communities to help measure the impact of the wildfire on air quality, and to better inform the population.

“We are now arming people with information so that they can change their behaviour and avoid being exposed to smoke from wildfires,” Jeff says. Canadians are now able to find evidence of how smoke affects their health and what they can do about it. In addition to AQHI+ and emergency monitoring, Health Canada is collaborating with provinces, territories and other federal departments to enhance information available to Canadians. For example, the province of British Columbia has developed research and messages about clean air shelters and air purifiers that can be effective during wildfires.

Public health officials from across Canada are prepared to help their communities protect their health from wildfire smoke. Special messages have been developed to notify Canadians when smoke is expected in their area, and the Firework National Wildfire Smoke Model from the Meteorological Service of Canada provides a forecast that includes when smoke is expected to be in an area – and when it is forecasted to go away.

“Ten years ago, no one was talking about wildfires, and now we have a huge community of practice and established programs from coast to coast to coast,” Jeff says. “The Government of Canada’s response around smoke is a great example of what partnerships can bring. Research isn’t the only important thing when it comes to science – we need to make sure that we can apply our knowledge in the most efficient and impactful way possible in order to bring science to Canadians.”