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EDITORIAL: Wildfires, smoke likely common occurrence in years to come

Smoke filled skies over the Canadian Rockies are now as much a summer tradition as going to the lake or heading out on the trails.
July 29, 2021
Cartoon by Patrick LaMontagne.

Smoke-filled skies over the Canadian Rockies are now as much a summer tradition as going to the lake or heading out on the trails.

In the past, it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence but the regularity has only increased as temperatures climb and climate change has become indisputable.

The threat of wildfires hit home a little more when on July 23 one near Lac Des Arcs just east of Canmore and by the Trans-Canada Highway began, but was quickly contained by firefighters from Alberta Forestry and Exshaw and Canmore Fire-Rescue departments

The sight of water bombers flying just above the treeline and dumping fire retardants within eyeshot of hundreds of vehicles heading in and out of the Bow Valley was highlighted by dozens of videos easily found online.

But while the sight was shocking for many, it’s part of the unfortunate reality of living in a community surrounded by millions of hectares of forest.

All Bow Valley communities use FireSmart plans to mitigate the risk and safety tips are consistently hammered home to all residents and visitors. The maps of wildfire behaviour and the threat to local communities glow red, with little to fix the issue without cutting down every tree.

The knowledge of combating wildfires is always improving, but the fires will always be one step ahead.

Wildfire Analytics, a University of Alberta wildland fire research team, is continuing to study and analyze the paths fire may travel. Known as fire pathways, the research is aiming to better predict the way fire travels and works with transportation engineers to mitigate fire risk further.

Additional fuel breaks throughout the region are also always being completed as trees are thinned to reduce the risk.

If the worst were to happen, evacuation plans have also been established, but the threat of the long-term health impacts from smoke have been amplified.

Early studies have shown the wildfire smoke exposure is most dramatically being felt by people with pre-existing conditions.

A 2020 Health Canada analysis on the impacts of fine particulate matter from wildfire seasons had the annual cost from premature deaths due to acute or short-term exposure be between $410 million to $1.8 billion. The total cost depended on the severity of wildfires.

The analysis also estimated the cost from chronic exposure was between $4.3 and $19 billion.

The same health impact analysis estimated an average of 6,000 wildfires took place each year and 2.8 million hectares of land burned in Canada.

While few people are directly killed from the fires, the report estimated between 2013 and 2019 roughly 620 to 2,700 premature deaths per year are attributed to wildfire smoke.

A 2017 Canadian Forest Services paper forecasted climate change could led to a 50 per cent increase in western Canada wildfires.

The spread of wildfires is linked to both natural and human causes, making the ones caused by people entirely avoidable.

The Spring 2019 Wildfire Review by Alberta Wildfire found an average of 1,266 wildfires a year between 1990 and 2019. The majority were in northern Alberta, but 56 per cent were human-caused and 44 per cent were naturally occurring.

The largest recent threat was the 2017 Verdant Creek wildfire that was spread over a two-month period and reached dangerously close to the Town of Banff after enveloping about 18,000 hectares to the town’s southwest.

The threat to the town was only a matter of days away, but it was eventually contained.

Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks are all under an extreme fire hazard, while almost 300 wildfires are spread throughout British Columbia.

Health experts are continuing to ring the alarm bell of the continued impacts of exposure to smoke as wildfires become a more common occurrence.

As residents and visitors continue to flock to the valley, photos of smoke-filled skies will likely be as common as the mountains.