B.C. wildfires led to 'record-breaking year' for poor air quality in Alberta's Industrial Heartland

If the blanket of smoke that hung over the capital region last summer wasn’t enough of an indicator of the effects of the B.C. wildfires, an Alberta organization has released new data showing the impact on air quality.

Poor air quality largely caused by smoke from B.C. wildfires

Views of Edmonton's river valley were dystopian as smoke from the B.C. wildfires cloaked the city this summer. (@Raptor_Chick/Twitter)

Last summer's B.C. wildfires saw huge swaths of smoke drift across Alberta. Now, new data from a monitoring group in Alberta's Industrial Heartland shows the impact the fires had on the region's air quality. 

The Fort Air Partnership monitors air quality in the area northeast of Edmonton, and found there was a huge jump in the number of monitored hours where the air posed a health hazard.

In 2018, there were 849 hours where the Air Quality Health Index rating in the the Industrial Heartland was high or very high risk, compared to just 57 hours in 2017.

"That was predominantly due to wildfire smoke in August that impacted the entire capital region," said Nadine Blaney, executive director for the Fort Air Partnership.
The Fort Air Partnership monitors the air people breathe in this 4,500 square kilometre airshed northeast of Edmonton. (Fort Air Partnership)

The results aren't surprising, she said, largely due to the haze that hovered over the area this summer.

"It was very visible, right, to everybody," said Blaney. "You could smell it, you could see it. And it lasted for a good two weeks."

The smoke blew over from B.C., where an estimated 600 wildfires were burning.

Wildfire smoke increases the level of harmful particles in the air, which can cause health problems, particularly for people with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions.

Last year, there were 957 occurrences where pollutant levels were too high, based on the province's air quality objectives, Blaney said. Out of those 957 occurrences, she said most were caused by the wildfire smoke in August.

"This is definitely a record-breaking year," she said.

"Even in 2016 when we had the Fort McMurray fire, which did impact us as well, we only had 108 exceedances."

August was the worst month for air quality in the region, Blaney said, but air quality readings for the other months of the year were typically of low risk to health.

Hazy conditions cast a strange hue over downtown Edmonton on the morning of Aug. 15, 2018. (Terry Reith/CBC)