Where there's smoke, there's reason to talk climate change, says Laurier chemistry professor

The wildfires in northern Ontario should spark conversations about climate change with people in southern Ontario who are seeing and smelling smoke, says Hind Al-Abadleh, an expert on air pollution, aerosols and climate change.

Increased frequency and intensity of wildfires surpassing predictions, researcher says

Hind Al-Abadleh, shown in front of an air quality monitoring station in Kitchener, says smoke from wild and forest fires can be a health concern for people in southern Ontario, but it should also spark conversations about the impact climate change has on the intensity and frequency of fires. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

It takes more than water to fight forest fires and wildfires — it also takes conversations, policies and knowledge, says Canadian researcher Hind Al-Abadleh.

There are the obvious health concerns when smoke from wildfires can be seen and smelled in Waterloo region and other parts of southern Ontario, said Al-Abadleh, a university research professor in chemistry at Wilfrid Laurier University and an expert on air pollution, aerosols and climate change.

But the smouldering issue behind many of the fires that burn out of control is climate change, she said.

"Scientists have predicted that forested areas will experience increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, one of the major impacts of climate change," the researcher said.

"It is not surprising that's been happening. But the rate at which we are experiencing it is happening faster than the predictions. And this is what's concerning."

Health impacts can be serious

Al-Abadleh does not downplay the possible health effects, even when hundreds of kilometres away from the fire.

"Wildfire smoke is harmful to health when you have prolonged exposure to smoke because it contains harmful gases and it contains fine particulate matter, that upon inhalation, that can go deep into the lungs," she said, noting the closer a person is to the fire and smoke, the more there's a concern.

To minimize the impact of wildfire smoke, she recommends refraining from starting backyard bonfires or even barbecues when smoke is already in the air. As well, people might want to reconsider driving in gasoline-powered vehicles.

"The underlying cause of poor air quality and climate change is the same: It is the combustion of fossil fuels."

You can learn what the air quality index is through a website run by the Ontario government. Thursday's forecast for Waterloo region called for readings in the low-risk range, meaning people could enjoy regular outdoor activities. 

On Monday, the index had Waterloo region in the moderate-risk range, where officials suggest people reduce or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities.

The government and Al-Abadleh both note that smoke in the air puts people with heart or breathing problems at greater risk.

The smoke from forest fires made the moon and sun appear reddish earlier in July. This photo of the moon was taken in Montreal on July 19. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Red sun and hazy skies

Peter Kimbell, warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, said people have seen the red sun and the hazy skies, and that's the primary impact for people in southern Ontario.

"Obviously, the folks in northwestern Ontario near the forest fires have much higher impact than we do, in fact a dramatically greater impact, but because of the way the winds have been blowing the last few days, some of that forest fire smoke, the particulate matter, has drifted over southern Ontario, particularly on Monday."

Some of that smoke may also be seen on Thursday, he said.

It's not very concentrated smoke in southern Ontario, Kimbell said, which means lessened health concerns, but "it is there and it does make for slightly hazy skies."

Kimbell said the likelihood forest fires will stop producing smoke in the short term "is pretty small, small to nil."

"My colleagues in British Columbia are saying that they're suggesting that the smoke will probably be persisting into September and that's very possible for the forest fires in northwestern Ontario. So this kind of thing could recur in southern Ontario for some time yet."

A waterbomber drops water on a forest fire.
More than 140 forest fires were burning in northwestern Ontario on Wednesday morning. (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry/Twitter)

Need to have plans

Citizens can help address climate change — which in turn would potentially impact how severe wildfires become in the future — by electing politicians who take the matter seriously, Al-Abadleh said.

"It is very important that these elected officials know that the citizens are aware of the impact of climate change. They'd like to have an adaptation plan in place. They'd like to have a mitigation plan in place in order for us to minimize the impact that climate change will have on our individual lives and our neighbours' lives and kids' lives for the future."

She said you can make a difference by learning about what is happening and how to stop it.

"Everybody understands their own health conditions better than others and therefore try to see what does a low versus moderate versus high-risk air quality health index means, given the health conditions that you are experiencing and given the lifestyle that you would like to live," she said.

"Then examine your carbon intense lifestyle. Are there areas in your lifestyle that you can tackle that will minimize your carbon footprint?"

Listen to the full interview: