May 30, 2024

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with Grist and Interlochen Public Radio in Northern Michigan.

Wildfires in western and central Canada spread rapidly this week, forcing thousands of people to evacuate, with smoke billowing into the Midwest and prompting air quality warnings in several states, a reminder of last year’s smoky conditions.

“You looked outside and buildings more than a few blocks away started to look like smoke,” said Matt Taraldsen, the supervising meteorologist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in St. Louis. Paul. “You could definitely see the smoke outside, you could smell it, you could even taste it in the morning. It was really bad.”

Climate change is a major contributor to longer and more often wildfire seasons and exacerbations air pollution due to smoking.

Dry conditions and high winds drive these fires to Canada’s warmest winter on record. Some are “zombie fires” which started last season and smoldered underground during the winter and reignited this spring.

“It’s so crunchy out there,” said Jennifer Smith, the national warning preparedness meteorologist for the Meteorological Service of Canada.

Last year, Canada experienced its worst wildfire season on record; round 45 million hectares burned and over 235,000 people were forced to evacuate. This month, Canada introduced a new marker on its air quality index specifically for wildfires – until now the scale was one to 10, but now there is a 10-plus, indicating extremely poor air quality.

“We issue this particular advisory when it’s at a 10-plus, and that’s because of wildfire smoke,” Smith said. “So it’s really just to emphasize how dangerous the situation is.”

In 2023, parts of the Midwest and Northeast United States has some of the worst air quality in the world. Taraldsen said the checking of the air quality index has become part of many people’s daily routines.

“They would basically use our forecasts to structure their day, which was unusual,” he said. “It seemed to be a paradigm shift where people were well aware that air quality is important, and it can have an impact on your life, and that you can get forecasts for it just like you can for any other weather.”

Improving indoor air quality by Purifiers, filtration, and more basic techniques are an important way to address wildfire smoke exposure — something that’s also gaining steam at the federal level.

Predicting air quality can be difficult; it deals with weather, atmospheric chemistry and human activity. And while the movement of wildfire smoke is difficult to predict, the location of the fires is an important factor.

“Basically all of the air quality impacts we’ve had in the last few years have been due to remote fires,” Taraldsen said. “Once you move people out into the fields, it’s hard for them to come back.”

In general, agencies prioritize responding to fires that threaten human life and infrastructure. Because there are limited resources, those in more remote areas are sometimes left to burn out.

“It’s probably not going to get as many resources as quickly as, say, a city being evacuated,” said Alexandria Jones, the communications manager at the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, a government agency that coordinates resources such as aircraft and firefighters.

Last summer, some of the wildfire smoke that blanketed much of the Midwest and Northeast U.S. came from hard-to-reach areas, according to Alec Kownacki, a meteorologist with Michigan’s air quality division.

“A lot of the wildfires that caused the smoke were in very remote areas that they had no access to,” he said. “So they literally just said, ‘We just have to let it burn out, because it’s in the middle of the woods.’ There are no access roads.’”

In Canada, fires are initially managed by local governments in partnership with provinces and territories. As intensity increases, the interagency center works to manage resources across the country, and sometimes internationally. Last year, Canada brought in 5,500 firefighters from other countries and also sent its own firefighters to Australia – a kind of firefighter exchange.

Indigenous communities disproportionately bear the brunt of wildfires and the smoke they produce. Of the nearly 300 evacuation orders issued in Canada by September 2023, more than 95 were for Indigenous communities — a drastic increase from previous years.

The Assembly of First Nations worked with Indigenous Services Canada to update its fire protection strategy last May, focusing on both wildfires and building fires.

Cindy Woodhouse, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a 2023 statement that the strategy is a critical step in ensuring the safety and well-being of their communities.

“Every year, First Nations communities experience fires that could have been prevented or mitigated with adequate infrastructure, resources and support,” said Woodhouse. “Fire services in First Nations communities are frequently faced with insufficient resources and insufficient funding to meet the needs of our population.”

Last week the prime minister’s office highlighted millions of dollars in additional funding for wildfire response in his budget.

Jones, with the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, said most wildfire response is currently going to the provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia.

The government also gave up $1.2 million Canadian dollars ($881,200) in funding for the center to assist with wildfire prevention and mitigation and strengthening the FireSmart Canada Programwhich aims to help people prepare for and prevent wildfires through efforts such as removing flammable vegetation around homes.

“The wildfire season probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but there are things people can do to protect their properties and their communities,” she said. “Focusing on the prevention piece is essential to preparing people and making them more resilient to wildfires.”

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