In 2023, Edmonton recorded the highest number of smoke hours in any year since Environment Canada starting tracking in 1953.
This year has seen 291 smoke hours so far. That smashes the previous record of 229 smoke hours, set in 2018.
“We’ve had data in Canada for smoke visibility since around the 1950s… and this is the greatest number of smoke hours we’ve ever seen in Edmonton since these measurements have been made,” said Natalie Hasell, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Smoke hours are calculated when visibility is reduced to six statute miles or less.
Hasell said Edmonton will likely have more smoke hours this year.
“We’ve beaten the record that we had in 2018, which was 229 smoke hours, and we’re not done,” she said.
“The significant part is that this is continuing and it’s already past mid-month in September. We don’t have any reason to believe at this point that much is going to change any time soon.”
In 2021, Edmonton recorded 126 hours of smoke. In 2022, there were zero smoke hours.
“A zero-hour year doesn’t mean you didn’t have smoke,” Hasell explained. “It just means you didn’t have enough smoke to reduce visibility to six miles or less.”
The smoke has caused a “rather large number for this year — and continuing,” which Hasell says is reflective of the record-breaking wildfire season Alberta has had — and the fires still burning across the province, as well as B.C., Northwest Territories and northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“It has to do with the way fires behave and it has to do with our low-pressure centres and high-pressure centres have been moving across the region,” Hasell said.
“We have many — still — many active fires in Northern Alberta, Northern B.C., Northwest Territories. So any time you have wind from the north or northwest, it will bring smoke into northcentral Alberta.”
As of Sept. 18, Alberta had recorded a record-setting 2.03-million hectares burned by wildfires in the 2023 season. Wildfire season officially lasts until October.
“The fact that these fires are persisting has led to many, many hours of poor air quality, visibility reduced and smoke — repeatedly,” Hasell said.
On Sunday, Edmonton’s air quality health index was listed as 10+ (very high risk). By Monday afternoon, it was a level 3 (low risk).
The extremely poor air quality led to the Canada West Soccer match being cancelled.
Christy Morin, executive director of the Kaleido Family Arts Festival said festival organizers have been watching Edmonton’s air quality closely.
“We were really concerned about smoke this summer,” she said on Monday.
“We had many meetings with different festival directors and producers… It’s this variable that you don’t know if it’s going to come in or come out, if it’s going to be high or low, and what’s high? And what’s the city standard? What’s manageable and what does health say?
“And then you have a scale that goes one to 10 and we can get levels of 11 and 12, outside the one-10 (range), which is a little confusing.”
Really bad smoke could negatively affect a local festival, even force a cancellation, Morin said. Smoke is a top of mind.
“Insurance with smoke… What happens if you have to cancel a whole entire festival ? It would cost you $250,000… It could bankrupt, literally, festivals.”
Hasell says keeping a close eye on the air quality and how you feel is important.
“Especially since you’ve been repeatedly exposed to really poor air quality regularly now,” she said. “This is May, June, July, August and now into September.
“It’s definitely a stressor on the system,” Hasell said, adding it can impact mental health as well as physical.
“Symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure: headaches, mild cough, production of phlegm, sore, watery eyes, nose, throat, sinus irritation.
“And it can get worse. If you start having dizziness, chest pain, severe cough, shortness of breathe, wheezing, including asthma attacks, heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat, you should be seeking medical attention quite urgently.”
Canadians can track concentration of wildfire smoke by particulate size using Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Fire Works map.
“We look at 2.5 microns, even though smoke is made up of particles of all sizes — big, large smoke and ash pieces to minuscule. It’s the minuscule stuff that makes it into your lungs pretty deep. Most of the other stuff is filtered out by your natural system,” Hasell said.
The special air quality statement that was in effect for Edmonton was lifted Monday, but Hasell doesn’t expect the clear conditions to last.
“I would expect in a couple of days, you’re going to be under the smoke again, or dealing with the poor air quality again. It’s just a temporary break.”