For singers, wildfire smoke is breathtaking — in the very worst way

When smoke from summer wildfires chokes the skies over Edmonton, Marie-Josée Ouimet feels like there is lead in her chest.

The suffocating haze, which has become synonymous with summers in Western Canada, often leaves the professional singer gasping for breath. 

"For somebody like myself who has fragile lungs, the smoke can be quite irritating, it can be quite debilitating," said Ouimet, who suffered from asthma as a child.

"What does that feel like? It really feels like there's a vise around my rib cage." 

For Ouimet, a vocal coach, choral director and classically trained soloist, the smoke is not only uncomfortable — it threatens her livelihood.

Music is her passion but it also pays her bills. Ouimet works with four Edmonton choirs, including the University of Alberta's Chorale Saint-Jean, to make ends meet. Her voice has brought her to stages across Canada. 

But for a time last August, when Edmonton's air quality was rated worst in the world, her breathing became laboured, her voice raspy. She struggled to do her work.

"For me as a singer, vocally, it's very frustrating when the air quality affects your instrument. The quality of air, the way you feel, fatigue, all of that will affect your instrument. 

"As somebody who's trying to work through the summer, trying to get gigs, trying to be able to live my life as a musician, it becomes quite frustrating." 

Adrienne Lamb/CBC

Ouimet is not alone. Wildfire smoke can exacerbate respiratory problems — and the voice can be particularly vulnerable. 

"This past summer when the quality of the air was so bad, it was hard on singers," said Laurier Fagnan, longtime director of Chorale Saint-Jean, one of the largest francophone choir in Western Canada.

Fagnan, 55, is also the founder of an acoustics laboratory on the university's south Edmonton campus. The lab is the first of its kind in Canada.

The voice as an instrument is surprisingly resilient, Fagnan said, but long-term exposure takes a toll. 

"The voice can get quite hoarse quite quickly and chronically if you're around smoke a lot," Fagnan said.

"Singers exposed to smoke over an extended period of time would be at risk of doing damage … and would pay a price.

"For instance, when singers performed in lounges when everyone could smoke in lounges or bars, that was a very, very dangerous situation for the voice."

Smoke can compromise the epithelium, the protective mucus membrane in the fragile vocal folds, causing swelling, even permanent damage, Fagnan said.

"It's almost like Star Trek, going into battle without shields," he said. "It's the shield for the voice and smoke can really damage that.

"Your mucous membrane gets dried out and then your vocal folds are vibrating muscle on muscle." 

Having lungs full of smoke is a familiar sensation for Fagnan. He spent 10 years fighting forest fires to put himself through school.

Long-term exposure to the toxic haze is not just dangerous for singers looking to protect their voices. 

According to U of A wildfire researcher Mike Flannigan, inhaling smoke from a wildfire can be equal to smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes a day.

Smoke is a "toxic soup" which can become trapped in the lungs and exacerbate health problems like asthma or lung and heart disease, said Flannigan, a professor in the department of renewable resources.

"Prolonged exposure is the worst," Flannigan said.

As climate change intensifies and extreme weather becomes more prevalent, smoke-filled summers will become the new normal in Western Canada, Flannigan said. 

"It used to be a rural problem, smoke and fire was in the forest, but now it seems to be affecting major urban areas because of the smoke travelling large distances.

"These cities are getting smoked out from fires that are burning a long distance away.

"With more fire on the landscape, burning more intensely, I predict a hot, smoky future." 

Adrienne Lamb/CBC