Wildfire smoke made Fort McMurray air the worst in Canada, U.S. in 2023

Peace River and Yellowknife followed Fort McMurray. Prince Rupert, B.C. was Canada’s least polluted city last year.

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The 2023 wildfire season made Fort McMurray’s air quality worse than any other city in Canada or the United States, according to a report from the Swiss firm IQAir. 

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The report matches data from the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) that found the most dangerously smoky days in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region were recorded last summer. The highest concentrations of dangerous particulates were recorded during the 2016 Horse River Wildfire.

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“Air pollution is a silent killer,” said Dr. Samantha Green, a family physician with Unity Health Toronto and associate professor at the University of Toronto who was not involved with the report, in an interview with The Canadian Press. “It’s a problem that I think we’re not used to thinking about, but that we need to be thinking about more.”

The report aggregated monitoring data from different sites across the world. It measured fine particulate matter that is small enough to travel deep into human lungs and put someone’s health at risk. The data is measured in micrograms per cubic metre.

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The World Health Organization says concentrated levels should remain below five; Fort McMurray was more than four times that limit and averaged 22.8. WBEA found air quality breached safe air guidelines nearly 4,000 times between April and July.

The IQAir report found most of Canada’s worst cities for air were in Alberta and British Columbia. Peace River followed Fort McMurray, while Yellowknife finished third. Prince Rupert, B.C. was Canada’s least polluted city with an average 2.7.

The 2023 wildfire season burned 22,000 square kilometres in Alberta, or about 10 times the five-year average. About 38,000 people from 48 communities were part of evacuations. Wildfires burned more than 3,643 square kilometres of land in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo, mostly around the Fort Chipewyan area.

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Wildfires forced more than 1,000 people to leave Fort Chipewyan last May. People returned home three weeks later. Some private cabins were destroyed, but Fort Chipewyan and nearby reserves were spared from flames. More than 350 people from Fort Smith, NWT and Fort Fitzgerald arrived in Fort McMurray in August because of wildfires. They went home more than a month later.

Firefighting, evacuations and the logistics of the 2023 wildfire season cost the municipality more than $4.1 million

Health Canada says air pollution is the biggest environmental contributor to poor health and premature death. Thousands of hospital visits and more than 15,300 premature deaths are attributed to air pollution. Related illnesses and deaths cost Canada’s economy $120 billion annually.

Wildfire smoke also made Canada’s air quality worse than what was recorded in the U.S., although Canada ranked 93rd out of 134 countries. The IQAir report found Bangladesh was the most polluted country in the world last year, averaging 79.9, followed by Pakistan and India. Only seven countries reported average concentrations within the WHO guidelines, including Mauritius, Iceland and Australia.

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