Wildfire smoke descends on Calgary, air quality index at 'very high risk'

An air quality alert was extended Tuesday morning to cover the city of Calgary as smoke from wildfires burning across Western Canada has descended on parts of southern Alberta.

Officials say air quality is so poor it could affect otherwise healthy people outside

An orange haze sits over Calgary on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, as wildfire smoke descends on southern Alberta.
An orange haze due to wildfire smoke sits over downtown Calgary on Tuesday morning. (el_fotografo_viajero/Instagram)

An air quality alert was extended Tuesday morning to cover the city of Calgary as smoke from wildfires burning across Western Canada has descended on parts of southern Alberta, replacing the bluebird sky with an eerie orange glow. 

Environment and Climate Change Canada issued the special air quality statement shortly before 8 a.m., hours after Calgarians awoke to a hazy, red sunrise. 

According to the agency, the air quality index for the city on Tuesday morning was listed at the top of the scale, at 10+, or "very high risk."

"The air quality is so poor that even those without pre-existing health conditions could experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, especially if you're doing strenuous activity outside," said Sara Hoffman, a meteorologist with Environment Canada.

"It's a potentially really dangerous situation that everyone needs to take seriously." 

Two images make up this composite photo. On the top, the city's skyline is seen from a hill against a blue sky. On the bottom, the city's skyline is barely visible due to a thick orange haze from wildfire smoke.
Two images taken from the same vantage point in Calgary show the extent to which wildfire smoke filled the air Tuesday. (Magda Gawlik)

Children, older adults, and those with lung or heart conditions are advised to be especially cautious and reduce activity outside if breathing becomes difficult. If severe symptoms develop, affected individuals should contact their health-care provider.

For those without pre-existing conditions, they are advised to beware of developing symptoms while outside such as a sore throat or coughing. 

"Sometimes you're just very tired or lethargic, not feeling very good, and even that can be attributed to air quality," Hoffman said. 

A man and a golden retriever sit on a wooden bench on a hill overlooking Calgary as thick wildfire smoke descends on the city.
A man and a dog sit on a bench Tuesday as wildfire smoke blows into Calgary. (James Young/CBC)

To find relief from the smoky air, people are advised to visit places with clean, cool air, such as shopping malls or libraries. 

Speaking on the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday, Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, a physician and an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, said smoke from burning wood is made of tiny particles that people can breathe deeply into their lungs.

"It's smaller than normal dust," he said. "It causes a lot of irritation and inflammation." 

To limit exposure, he advised those who must head outside to wear an N95 mask, which can filter out most of the smoke particles. For those at home, he said they should shut their windows and use air purifiers in rooms, if possible.

The City of Calgary issued a fire advisory due to the increased smoke in the area. 

While the fire department said current fire conditions are moderate, they might change amid Tuesday's warm and windy conditions. 

"We ask that everyone be vigilant when disposing of smoking materials and when using any outdoor flames," fire marshal Glenn Baxter said in a statement. 

If conditions change, the city might move to a fire restriction or fire ban. Rocky View County, which surrounds Calgary on three sides, is under a fire ban. 

When will the smoke clear? 

According to Hoffman, a ridge of high pressure has trapped smoke from provincial wildfires at the surface level, and a recent shift in wind direction has brought the smoke to southern Alberta. 

While air quality is expected to improve in the Calgary region through Wednesday, it's still uncertain when the smoke will clear. forecast for 2 a.m. on May 16 to 4 a.m. on May 18.
BlueSky Canada smoke forecast for 2 a.m. on May 16 to 4 a.m. on May 18. (

This weekend, however, Hoffman said another ridge of high pressure is expected to bring southerly winds, perhaps leading to a reprieve from the smoke. 

As of Tuesday morning, 88 wildfires were burning across Alberta, and dozens of other fires were blazing across British Columbia and Saskatchewan. 

According to a forecast map from BlueSky Canada, smoke from fires across Western Canada is expected to drift into southern Alberta over the next few days. 

Outside of Calgary, special air quality alerts are also in effect across much of northern and central Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and northern central Saskatchewan.

An orange haze blocks out the blue sky over downtown Calgary.
A red sun rises Tuesday morning over downtown Calgary. (Submitted by Laurent Tourville-Blanchet)


Jonathon Sharp is a digital journalist with CBC Calgary. He previously worked for CBS News in the United States. You can reach him at