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The Worst Canadian Wildfire Season on Record: What Does It Mean, and How Do We Cope?

Polluted air continues to spread from hundreds of wildfires burning throughout Canada. The elevated temperatures and drier season that has contributed to these wildfires can no longer be ignored.

Laura Herron, CIH, CSP, CHMM, CPEA, REM | Project Manager 
APTIM | Environment and Sustainability
Laura Herron has 32 years of experience in environmental services. She currently serves as a project manager, assisting clients with environmental regulatory compliance issues ranging from industrial hygiene, waste management, and contamination assessment to wetland and site development impacts. She is a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), Certified Safety Professional (CSP), Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM), Certified Professional Environmental Auditor (CPEA), and a Registered Environmental Manager (REM).


Burning eyes, scratchy throats, coughing, and concerning asthma spells has been a normal occurrence for anyone living in the northeastern U.S. since early June. More concerning is the orange haze that blanketed New York City and the smoky, hazy air residents have been experiencing since early June.

Why? The worst Canadian wildfire season on record, due to unusually high temperatures and dry conditions that have sparked 522 Canadian wildfires raging across three time zones in Canada from Alberta to Nova Scotia starting in March. The smoke that plagued the northeastern U.S. blew down from the areas in Quebec, which are not typically associated with major wildfires.

While the immediate effects of these wildfires are impossible to ignore, APTIM is committed to going a step further: understanding the long-term effects and developing solutions that can protect environmental and human health for generations to come. Here is what we know.

When is wildfire season?

Canada’s wildfire season usually begins in May and continues through October, with the worst period occurring in July and August when temperatures are the highest. The first fires of 2023 began in Alberta and so far, have burned more than 20 million acres. Since most of Canada is covered by boreal forests, there is a lot of potential for forest fires with the correct conditions. The boreal forests of Canada are the world’s largest intact biome.

When burned by wildfires, these forests release 10 to 20 times more carbon pollution per unit area than any other ecosystem, according to a 2022 study published in the Journal of Science Advances. The emissions from these wildfires contributes to increasing global temperatures, which in turn provides more conditions that can create more wildfires.

What causes wildfires?

Typically, lightning strikes cause half of the Canadian wildfires each season and is likely responsible for sparking the fires occurring in Quebec. The fires caused by lightning are the most damaging, as they tend to occur in remote areas which are difficult for firefighters to access. It is estimated that lightning strikes account for about 85 percent of the forest that is burned. However, lightning is not the only cause. One of Alberta’s fires was caused when an all-terrain vehicle burst into flames. Even sparks from braking trains have sparked fires.

How can wildfires be stopped?

Some areas of Canada are so remote that access is impossible. Fires in northwestern Quebec are too far out of control that letting the fires burn is the best possible option. Of the 522 active wildfires currently being tracked in Canada, 262 are listed as “out of control,” which includes fires in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. Canada does not have a national forest fire response system like in the U.S., so they rely on each of the 10 provinces and three territories to provide firefighting assistance.

In addition to regional Canadian assistance, 10 other countries (including Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, France, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, and the U.S.) have provided roughly 1,500 firefighters to help with fighting these wildfires.

With such large and remote forest areas, actions such as prescribed burns, where fires are set to reduce the risk of more serious and damaging blazes, is not an option for many parts of Canada. Prescribed burns remove the scrub, undergrowth and grasses that provide the fuel for wildfires—removing it, reduces the wildfire risk. In addition, large scale thinning of trees in the forest will also remove wildfire fuel.

How do wildfires affect environmental and human health?

The environmental effects of wildfires vary from increasing carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming, increasing fine particulate matter in the air—which can more easily reach and penetrate the lungs causing (or worsening) respiratory problems—and releasing toxins from buildings, homes, cars, furniture, carpet, and other items that are burned during the wildfires. These toxins can include mercury, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The toxins will be bound up in the ash, and rain events can result in surges of these chemicals into the waterways. The effects on wildlife and aquatic species is not fully understood. In addition to these issues, once cleanups begin, the waste generated from fire damaged homes, buildings, damaged concrete, roofing materials, organic waste, etc., will also eventually end up in landfills.

Still the fires rage on and smoke and haze continue to linger over sections of North America, particularly the Northeast. Polluted air continues to spread from hundreds of wildfires burning throughout Canada. The elevated temperatures and drier season that has contributed to these wildfires can no longer be ignored.

How can APTIM help?

The long-term impact to air quality in the regions affected by smoke from the Canadian wildfires is unclear at this point. Should it cause areas to violate national air quality standards for longer than a temporary basis, the result could be new regulations, such as new or stricter emissions standards related to fine particulate matter or other pollutants, to further reduce man-made pollution.

A consequence from this might be more types of businesses and operations becoming subject to air pollution rules and requiring air permits. APTIM can assist with understanding new and existing air quality requirements and their impacts to businesses, developing compliance strategies, and obtaining any required air permits. Learn more about our environmental compliance capabilities.

It is my hope that this event will act as a steppingstone for everyone’s understanding of the potential devastating effects that climate change can bring about. The journey starts when we become aware of the issues and ends with understanding that solutions exist—and that we as individuals can play a role.

APTIM. In Pursuit of Better.

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