The smoke drifts from British Columbia into Alberta. PHOTO: jkburton/Pixabay

JoAnn Sokolowski spends summer days outside with her animals. She loves riding horses and volunteers at a barn in her freetime. 

But last July, things were different. She shut all the doors and windows and stayed inside her home all day. She struggled to breathe.

 “It’s almost like a choking feeling,” Sokolowsk said. “It’s very hard to describe.” 

The reason: smoke from wildfires in British Columbia had spread into Alberta and worsened the air quality in Red Deer, the central Alberta city where she lives. 

The whole world is heating up quickly, but Canada is warming up twice as fast as the worldwide average, which leads to a higher chance of fast-spreading forest fires. People with underlying health conditions are most seriously affected by the air pollution caused by fires. Experts warn that they will have to adapt to new conditions in the future.

Smoke can do damage to our hearts and lungs.

Sokolowski says that day in July, she saw a heavy sticky crust of smoke on her car and dust everywhere. The mother of two teenagers said her mental health began to deplete and she felt like there was little hope for the situation to get better.

 “It’s affecting everything,” Sokolowski said. “ … Humans, animals, everybody’s being affected by this.”  

Smoke can damage hearts and lungs even when it cannot be seen or smelled.  Smoke can also make existing heart and lung problems worse, leading to early death in some cases.

Sokolowski suffers from a chronic cough, a clotting disorder and sleep apnea, due to which she has to sleep with a machine that pushes air into her lungs. As the air quality worsens during the summer, her health does, too.

JoAnn Sokolowski enjoys riding her horses in the mountains. PHOTO: Courtesy of JoAnn Sokolowski

 “I feel that it’s dry. It feels raspy. You can’t breathe it in, and you know it’s affecting your lungs,” she said. “And this past year was especially bad.” 

Experts also say that in order to help people with underlying health conditions, health authorities can try to prevent and fight pre-existing health issues that lead to more vulnerability due to poor air quality. Public health systems will have to be more resilient to future risks from wildfires, and the government has to invest in systems that provide warnings when air quality worsens. 

Western Canada saw more wildfires this summer compared to the five-year average.

While the whole world is warming up, the Canada Change in Climate Report found that this country is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. So although Canada has been dealing with heatwaves and forest fires for a long time, they are expected to increase dramatically. Alberta reported 1,142 wildfires this year, which was 124 more than the five-year average of the province, according to Mike Flanagan, a fire-science research chair at Thompson Rivers University.

Flanagan said both Saskatchewan and British Columbia also reported above average numbers of wildfires this summer. This matters for Albertans as the smoke from these two provinces travels to Alberta and affects air quality. 

Additionally,  extremely hot days are expected to more than double in Canada within the next 30 years, which will contribute to an increase in what scientists call “fire weather”.

Forest fires are increasing in Western Canada. PHOTO: Geralt/Pixabay

What can be done to prevent forest fires from happening and polluting our air?

According to the Climate Atlas of Canada that was published in 2019, there are three things Canadians can do to prevent forest fires.

Firstly, experts recommend more fire bans and forest closures, as well as effective fire education to reduce the number of fires caused by humans.

Secondly, they recommend that wildfire response strategies be adapted and increased to combat more intense fires.

Thirdly, people across the country will have to work to reduce the emissions that cause climate change. 

When Sokolowski thinks about the future, she thinks about her children and future generations more than herself: “Because what we do now is going to create … if they have a life here and really that’s the biggest thing right? Climate change and flooding, earthquakes, everything else … we have to do whatever we can to mitigate, to help and prolong so the earth can continue to be alive.”

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