Clean air shelter policy could help N.W.T. communities breathe through wildfire season

·4 min read
Wildfire smoke over Yellowknife, as seen from Pilot's Monument, in July 2022.  (Graham Shishkov/CBC - image credit)
Wildfire smoke over Yellowknife, as seen from Pilot's Monument, in July 2022. (Graham Shishkov/CBC - image credit)

During the N.W.T.'s worst wildfire year on record, then-Yellowknife mayor Mark Heyck waived fees at the fieldhouse so people had a place to go that was free of smoke.

Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician in Yellowknife, said it was an important decision that gave residents a space to exercise and socialize after a month of being told to limit outdoor activity and to keep windows closed because the air quality was poor.

It hasn't happened again since.

Knowing climate change is expected to exacerbate wildfires in Canada and air quality in the summer is going to get smokier as time wears on, Howard wants to see a policy that'll trigger clean air shelters — like what the fieldhouse became back in 2014 — automatically.

Health Canada published guidance on clean air shelters in 2020. The health agency noted buildings like libraries, community centres and schools have been chosen as clean air shelters in some jurisdictions, and that they're more suitable for that purpose if, among other things, they have a system that filters out fine particulate matter like wildfire smoke.

Submitted by Courtney Howard
Submitted by Courtney Howard

"What I think would in fact be ideal would be if there was a certain threshold — you know, an air quality index of six for 24 hours or more with further smoky periods anticipated, where it just automatically triggers that initiative," said Howard.

She is also a wildfire researcher and planetary health policy worker, and is currently doing a masters in public policy at the University of Oxford in England.

Howard said such a policy would reduce people's stress about dealing with smoke, noting children in particular need to be very careful about exposure to air pollution because they breathe in more air than adults.

It would also relieve some of the pressure on community leaders, she said.

"The more aspects of our response to climate change that we're leaving to individuals to sort out on a one-off basis as opposed to systems to have embedded within them, the more times we're going to miss the mark."

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), which monitors air quality in four N.W.T. communities and can issue special air quality statements throughout the territory, issued 105 of those bulletins — stemming from eight poor air quality events — between the start of June and the end of August.

Sara Hoffman, a meteorologist with ECCC, said air quality in the N.W.T. was "heavily affected" by wildfire smoke this year, and that wildfire smoke was "certainly more present" in the territory compared to recent years.

Submitted by Sara Hoffman
Submitted by Sara Hoffman

Who implements the policy?

Yellowknife doesn't have a clean air shelter policy, but Richard McIntosh, a spokesperson for the city, said it does have the capacity to support residents during intensely smoky times and during heat waves.

The fieldhouse, he said, has HVAC systems that provided "relatively better air quality" back in 2014 — and the city would "use that again if need be."

The territorial government also doesn't have a clean air shelter policy. Jeremy Bird, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, said such a mechanism would be a municipal responsibility.

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

Bird said the department is, however, working with leaders in N.W.T. communities to designate buildings as clean air shelters and is looking for funding to upgrade them.

Senior administrative officers can open and communicate the availability of clean air shelters in their communities, said Bird. The department also offers guidance on when to open them and who should use them.

Monitoring air quality

ECCC monitors air quality in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Norman Wells and Fort Smith. Hoffman said the air quality health index is a value between 1 and 10 that takes into account the amount of ozone, nitrogen and particulate matter (including wildfire smoke) that's in the air.

A value of one to three is low risk, a value of between four and six is moderate risk, a value of between seven and 10 is high risk, and anything higher than 10 is "very high risk." Hoffman said the air quality index can grow exponentially, but ECCC's website shows values higher than 10 as simply being "more than 10."

Graham Shishkov/CBC
Graham Shishkov/CBC

ECCC provides health messages for the general population and those who are at risk, based on what the index is.

Hoffman said although ECCC doesn't have air quality monitoring equipment in other N.W.T. communities, it does have the capacity to issue special air quality statements throughout the territory based on other pieces of information — like reduced visibility and the smell of wildfire smoke.

Health Canada estimates air pollution from wildfire smoke has, in recent years, caused several hundred to several thousand premature deaths annually as well as many asthma episodes and hospital admissions in the country. The agency says overall air quality is also affected by warming temperatures, rising carbon dioxide levels and post-flood mould growth from climate change.

But as Hoffman and Howard pointed out, air quality is not at the top of people's minds.

"The problem is that they don't even teach doctors about air pollution yet," said Howard. "The more we talk about it, the more we're going to be able to come in to community to come up with a solution we require to keep ourselves as healthy as possible through these smoky, hot episodes."