One look at the sky over the Bow Valley and you would be excused if you thought you were an extra in Mad Max.
The apocalyptic look has brought reasonable concerns for many residents and visitors, especially in the wake of a second wildfire in the valley this summer.
The thick fog-like appearance earlier in the week and the weekend have made the mountains nearly invisible at times as much of western Canada continues to be inundated with the smoke.
The Air Quality Health Index run by the Canadian government was listed as 10+ – the highest possible – for the Banff, Canmore and MD of Bighorn region on Monday (Aug. 16) at noon and recommended people reduce or reschedule outdoor activities.
In short: stay inside, shut the windows and find an indoor activity to keep busy. It is exactly what everyone wants to hear during the summer.
The region also benefits from improved air quality monitoring after the Calgary Region Airshed Zone – which Banff, Canmore and the MD of Bighorn are a part of – further expanded its air quality monitoring in July.
Purple air sensors were added to monitor the real-time air quality and provide data to help inform locals.
There are countless guides for dealing with wildfire smoke, all of which can likely be quoted verbatim by longtime Bow Valley residents
The Calgary Forest Area, which includes the Bow Valley, has the threat of wildfire listed as extreme due to the dry and unseasonably warm weather.
While smoke has blanketed the valley on and off this summer, the Aug. 13 wildfire near Dead Man’s Flats only exacerbated the situation.
Firefighting crews from Exshaw Fire-Rescue and Canmore Fire-Rescue were quickly on the scene, while provincial firefighters were on the ground and in the sky in less than two hours to help contain the blaze that was originally described as being 10 hectares in size.
Photos and videos from the Trans-Canada Highway painted a grim image of what could have been easily more damaging, particularly with the fires proximity to towns, the highway and several trails and tourism sites.
The wildfire was downgraded to six hectares late Friday (Aug. 13) and then listed as being held the next day. The initial investigation found it to be human-caused, though it is still ongoing to find the exact cause.
An ongoing theme of wildfires is how easily preventable they are.
In 2020, there were 704 wildfires in Alberta that burned 3,269 hectares (8,068 acres). Most shockingly, 88 per cent were caused by humans, according to provincial data.
The five-year average between 2016 and 2020 lists about 1,346 wildfires each year, with 63 per cent being caused by humans and the remaining 37 per cent from lightning.
The Devil’s Head wildfire took close to 10 months to extinguish and destroyed 2,420 hectares of forest after an abandoned campfire sparked it last September. The fire led the MD of Bighorn to be put on notice to evacuate at one point.
The previous large wildfire on July 23 near Lac des Arcs, just to the east of Canmore, was quickly contained by firefighters. However, the cause was ultimately deemed to be a discarded cigarette butt, likely tossed from a vehicle driving along the Trans-Canada Highway.
There has been considerable investment made in educating people on the dangers of something as simple as a discarded cigarette butt or an abandoned campfire can cause in the heavily forested areas.
While the costs of educating people are expensive, it is a drop in the bucket for the cost of rushing dozens of firefighters, helicopters and air tankers to the scene of a fire to mitigate the damage and risk to people and infrastructure.
The lessons are slowly working as Alberta Wildfire marked nearly 1,100 human-caused wildfires in 2015, which has gone down each year since to about 600 last year.
Though many wildfires are simply unpreventable, the onus is inevitably on all people to act with common sense and with respect for the communities they live in or visit.