Edmonton·CBC Explains

Tracking wildfire smoke will be crucial for everyone as the planet warms. Here's why

As bleak as it sounds, the post-apocalyptic, smoke-filled skylines that have become part of summer on the Prairies over the past few years are likely to be a thing of our future. 

Smoke forecasting may seem like a shot in the dark, but models are actually able to track its movement

Edmonton's river valley in August 2018, when wildfire smoke cloaked the city. (@Raptor_Chick/Twitter)

CBC Alberta and Saskatchewan have teamed up for a new pilot series on weather and climate change on the Prairies. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga will bring her expert voice to the conversation to help explain weather phenomena and climate change and how it impacts everyday life.

As bleak as it sounds, the post-apocalyptic, smoke-filled skylines that have become part of summer on the Prairies over the past few years are likely to be a thing of our future. 

From Edmonton to Regina and everywhere in between, we have all witnessed dramatic changes to air quality during the summer months with the sky painted red with haze thanks to wildfires burning close to home or sometimes thousands of kilometres away.

But we have also seen an improvement in the technology and how we track smoke.

Smoke forecasting may seem like a shot in the dark, but scientific models are actually able to track its movements and they are constantly evolving to become more accurate.

David Lyder is a modelling standards engineer with the Alberta government. His work has included Blue Sky, a smoke forecasting model available to the public.

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Scientists say that wildfire spread and intensity has increased markedly in the past 50 years. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga breaks down the three biggest ways a warming climate can impact fire risk.

Blue Sky is one of a number of models in use in North America along with the likes of Canada's Wildfire Smoke Prediction System or FireWork and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's smoke forecasting system in the U.S. 

"Smoke forecasting is a complicated system," he said.

"There are a lot of moving pieces: the emissions, the meteorology, the dispersion modelling. And so I think integrating the whole system together and making it work is quite challenging."

Lyder says that information is collected from Natural Resources Canada, satellite imagery and ground reports several times a day to create the Blue Sky model.

"The University of British Columbia takes that data that's created for them and uses meteorology to disperse the smoke."

A satellite image shows the smoke from fires in British Columbia drifting across Alberta and Saskatchewan in August of 2018. (NASA Earth Observatory/NASA GSFC/Lauren Daphin)

During intense and widespread fires, smoke is carried high in the atmosphere and can get caught up in the jet stream, travelling tremendous distances. 

If that smoke remains as a haze high up in the sky it is relatively harmless, but when it mixes down to the surface it can cause a whole host of problems including deteriorating air quality.

"The more we find out about smoke, the more we find out how toxic it is for humans," says Mike Flannigan, a research chair for Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Science.

"The number of people that die prematurely due to wildfire smoke in Canada is about 2,500 people ... so this is not a trivial thing at all." 

More and intense wildfires 

The last few years across the globe – from Australia to California to British Columbia –  have been marked by fire. In fact, 2021 was the third worst fire season in British Columbia's history.

A recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that looked at the impacts humans face with rising temperatures suggests that places that only experience fire every 400 years will experience them as often as once every 50 years.

And the Prairies have not been spared our active fire seasons and as we look to the future that will continue. 

The 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., caused $3 billion in insured damages alone and last year the entire town of Lytton, B.C., was razed.

As our climate warms, scientists predict longer and more intense fire seasons thanks to our upcoming hot summers and rainfall that can't quite seem to make up for the heat. 

Flannigan says about 6,000 fires burn around 2.5 million hectares each year in Canada.

"That's doubled since the early '70s. And my colleagues and I attribute this to human-caused climate change. We can't be any clearer than that," he says. 

Flannigan says that looking even further south could give us a glimpse towards our fire future.

"California has seen like a six times increase in area burn. And my fear is that what we're seeing in the states is going to come to Canada."

A wildfire is seen burning along Highway 1 near Big Sur, Calif., in January 2022. (Nic Coury/The Associated Press)

So why the increase?

Flannigan says that our fiery future is a factor of three things and it starts with our longer summers.

Fire season traditionally started April 1 in Alberta but that changed to March 1 starting about six or seven years ago, Flannigan said. 

Then there is more warmer unsettled weather producing more lightning which in turn increases the risk of tinder dry areas sparking to life.

Thirdly and arguably the most important, Flannigan said, is that as the atmosphere warms, it sucks moisture out of the vegetation so it dries more quickly.

"The drier the fuel the easier it is for fires to start and to spread."

Flannigan says that these factors lead to higher intensity fires which can be difficult to impossible to extinguish with human-led resistance alone.

Along with our expectations for generally dry summers, more extreme days like the heatwave of 2021 can fan the flames. 

"We expect more extreme days in the future across Canada as we continue to warm. So more extremes means more extreme fires."

Going beyond the natural fire cycle

Wildfire has always been a natural part of our ecosystem. However, climate change means we run the risk of these fires happening far too frequently. 

Flannigan says that allowing Mother Nature to take her course whenever possible is beneficial to the life cycle of the forests. 

"Eventually you get a patchwork quilt of recently burned areas and recently burned areas are unlikely to really burn for 20 years to 50 years which helps reduce the likelihood of these catastrophic fires" Flannigan said. 

Motorists on the Trans-Canada Highway travel past trees burned by the Lytton Creek wildfire near Lytton, B.C., on Aug. 15, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

"Our boreal forest has learned to survive and even thrive in the regime of semi-regular stand, renewing and replacing fires. They have strategies to deal with this. But if you start seeing fires every 20 years, our forests won't survive." 

What can we do?

Ellen Whitman a forest fire research scientist based in Alberta has been studying the history of wildfire in Canada.

"From an ecological perspective, increasing wildfires can have negative impacts if we see increasing severity or increasing short intervals."

She says that even if a fire doesn't lead to an evacuation or damaged homes, it can impact water supplies, another major human concern with climate change. 

"The forest is buffering water quality for us. So when you remove healthy vegetation, you can actually have quite serious outcomes to town water supplies," she says.

Despite the dangers, Whitman says there are things to be done in addition to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

"We can build our structures in a way that they are more likely to survive a fire entering a community. We can also design communities in a way that is fire resilient."

Those could include providing multiple points for people to evacuate or areas that have really good air filtration so that people can stay within the community but breathe freely in the event of a smoke occurrence. 

And to help our forests, Whitman says managing fuel to keep fires at a lower intensity is key.

"We can thin trees to reduce the density of conifer fuels that are there. Or by removing the lower limbs of trees and reducing forest density we can also make that forest more resilient to fire from an ecological standpoint."

How do you fireproof British Columbia?

12 months ago
Duration 8:30
With wildfire activity expected to worsen in B.C. in coming years, what is being done to fireproof cities, towns and homes?

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.


Christy Climenhaga

CBC Meteorologist

Christy Climenhaga is a meteorologist and CBC Edmonton's climate reporter, covering the impacts of climate change for the Prairies. She has worked as a CBC on-air meteorologist for more than 10 years, in the North and Saskatchewan. Have a climate question? Reach out at christy.climenhaga@cbc.ca.

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