As smoke lingered over the Northwest Territories this summer, France Benoit thought often about her husband.
“My husband got sick in the summer of 2014 during the summer from the smoke and ultimately died, not necessarily from that, but I certainly feel like the smoke was just masking the symptoms,” said Benoit, owner and operator of Le Refugio Farm in Yellowknife.
The territory’s top doctor said it will take years to determine the health impacts of this summer’s historic wildfire smoke, but a study completed after the 2014 Northwest wildfires found an increase in hospital visits due to asthma and pneumonia.
For Benoit, the summer was a challenge: processing his crops became a problem because he couldn’t have the windows open on certain days when there was smoke outside and he often felt out of breath doing normal tasks like walking.
“I’m afraid that this is, or is, the new normal,” Benoit said.
Data and funding needed
Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, said in the 20 years she has lived in the territory, this was the worst summer she has experienced.
“We have never before experienced such prolonged exposure to wildfires, smoke and a long dry season,” he said.
Kandola said reviewing the data to see the impact of smoke from the 2023 wildfire season will take time, but added that a baseline was established in the summer of 2014.
The 2014 study found that emergency room visits for asthma doubled, there was an increase in pneumonia and the most affected populations were indigenous people and children.
To repeat that study, Kandola said they would need funding to conduct the research. She hopes that she would show more heart and lung disease if they could follow people to see the long-term impacts.
He said hospitalization data will not be formally available for at least six months, so it will take months, if not years, for the information to be received.
The newly installed PurpleAir sensors, which cost approximately $350, are helping experts collect air quality data. The sensors track air quality and post real-time results on the website. PurpleAir.
“We’re trying to get ordinary people or citizens involved in measuring their own air quality and we’ve had tremendous success,” said John McKay, who runs the Territories’ air quality monitoring network. of the Northwest.
“I think we have them in every community now,” he said, adding that “the data goes into a map that is very, very intuitive.”
McKay said the air quality in the Northwest Territories this summer has been “something out of a science fiction movie.”
“I think it basically exceeded everything we expected,” he said, adding that sensors found air quality was above 1,000 micrograms on some days, when on a good day it should be between zero and 10.
Terri Lang, warning preparedness meteorologist, said the number of smoke hours in the Northwest Territories is high and certainly higher than in 2014, especially in some communities like Fort Smith.
He said that in some cases the number of hours of smoke in 2023 will be two or three times greater than the number observed in 2014.
Lang said in normal years the fire season would be ending, but with some still burning in the territory, residents will likely still see smoke.
Simone Cartwright said her family checks the government’s air quality index whenever there is smoke outside and they have an air purifier in every room.
“Having the kids inside is hard because there’s a lot more time inside for these kids up north when it’s really cold outside,” she said. “So we’re sad for them.”
Cartwright said masks are a part of everyday life when they go out.
“I think this is the first fall where everyone in the city is looking forward to the snow. We’re looking forward to winter because we have our beautiful blue skies here all winter long,” Cartwright said. “The sooner it comes, the better in my books.”