N.W.T.'s 2014 'summer of smoke' led to twice as many emergency room visits for asthma: study

·3 min read
A wildfire burned close to the Taltson hydro plant in N.W.T.'s South Slave region in 2014, forcing officials to shut it down temporarily.
A wildfire burned close to the Taltson hydro plant in N.W.T.'s South Slave region in 2014, forcing officials to shut it down temporarily.

(Courtesy of NWT Fire - image credit)

A study of the 2014 "summer of smoke" in Yellowknife has revealed some concrete examples of the impacts of a warming planet on health and health systems, and the importance of being prepared.

Dr. Courtney Howard, a Yellowknife emergency room physician who was the lead author on the study published in BMJ Open, said that in the span of two and a half months in 2014, there was a doubling of ER visits by people seeking treatment for asthma.

"That was a really profound impact," she told CBC.

The wildfire season in 2014 was the worst on record in the N.W.T. and, according to Howard, "one of worst smoke exposures that's been recorded in the medical evidence base."

An N.W.T. government report says there were 385 fires that summer. They burned 3.4 million hectares of forests in the territory, which is roughly equivalent to 250 times the size of the city of Yellowknife.

Howard said in the study that it led to two and half months of "unabating wildfire smoke in Canada's high subarctic."

"It really felt horrible when we were in the midst of the summer of 2014. And there's a reason for that," she told CBC.

Adrian Skok/Plummer's Lodge
Adrian Skok/Plummer's Lodge

Adapting to warmer temperatures

She said temperatures around Yellowknife are about 2.5 C warmer than they were seven years ago and that in Inuvik and the Beaufort Delta region, they're already 3 C warmer.

She said the world is only going to get warmer until at least 2050 and that we have to adapt to be able to anticipate similar summers in the future.

"There's lots we can do, including clean air shelters," she said. "We saw here in Yellowknife, that the mayor opened up the field house and made it free for people to go in and exercise."

She said other communities did similar things.

We want to make sure we can support people with physical activity through the smoky summers. - Dr. Courtney Howard, Yellowknife emergency room physician

The researchers also noted that people were exercising less that summer.

"We know that physical activity has a lot of benefits in terms of decreasing chronic diseases, whether it's things to do with high blood pressure, depression," said Howard.

"And so we want to make sure that we can support people with physical activity through the smoky summers."

She added that at the same time, if we really want temperatures to even out by 2050, "we need to ... decrease greenhouse gas emissions now."

"Otherwise it's just going to keep getting worse," she said.

She said other studies on the impact of climate change on health systems have shown that if the warming of the planet continues to the end of the century, "it's going to be really tough for us to maintain a well-functioning health care system through to the end of the lives of today's children."

"And nobody wants that."

Being prepared is good for physical and mental health

Howard said that it is good for people to be prepared before the wildfire season begins, by knowing their community's evacuation plan, and for people who have asthma to have the appropriate medications ready to access.

"But the preparation itself also makes you feel better from a mental health perspective," she said.

"And as we can see with COVID[-19], you know, not preparing for something, whatever it is, doesn't help."