Climate Corner: Wildfires smoke – not just a nuisance

Jun 24, 2023

Rebecca Phillips

While the Mid-Ohio Valley was spared the worst of the smoke plume from the recent Canadian wildfires, there is no doubt that we felt the effects, or that a different wind pattern could have left our valley with genuinely devastating levels of smoke pollution. As it was, New York City on one day had the world’s dirtiest air, and on several days our area experienced levels of particulate pollution labeled “unhealthy” for some or, for a few hours, all of our population. Unfortunately, this situation is likely to recur; as I write this on June 17, 432 fires are burning in Canada, ten of them new today, with 208 burning out of control.

2023 is looking like the worst wildfire season in Canada’s history. ABC News reported on June 7 that more than 8.7 million acres of Canada had burned, 2.5 million acres more than in an entire average fire season and larger than the state of Vermont. Ten days later, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre was reporting more than 2600 fires to date, with over 14 million acres burned, more than twice the land area of Ireland. So–what is causing these widespread disasters?

The fires that caused our most recent local air pollution were in eastern Canada, not typically a place prone to wildfire. But 2023 has been a dry year, with nearly half the country experiencing moderate to severe drought. May temperatures in Nova Scotia were twenty-plus degrees above normal, a lack of rainfall aggravating existing drought conditions. Extended droughts can kill some plants outright and in all cases can dry out the undergrowth and the dead branches that are fuel for wildfires. Scientists agree that climate change is the likely cause of both these increased temperatures and, in many places around the world, worsening droughts.

There is no question that wildfires have occurred throughout time and that humans are too often careless with flame. However, there is also no question that today’s massive fires are aggravated by climate change. The temperature increase of the last few decades has resulted in more lightning activity and lightning strikes, a common cause of fire. These higher temperatures cause more rapid evaporation of water, drying out the soil and pulling water from plant tissues. Dry plant matter burns quickly, allowing fires to spread rapidly. Unfortunately, recent years have also brought more high-intensity fires, which do not just clear out the undergrowth but are often damaging to the forests themselves. Massive numbers of animal deaths result. And of course, all that burning plant matter releases massive quantities of greenhouse gases, contributing to the climate change that makes such fires more likely, and compromised air quality a growing problem.

Wildfire smoke sends tiny particulates, known as PM 2.5, over great distances. These particulates are not just wood smoke, which is bad enough for lungs, but the remnants of anything else in the fire’s path–burned building materials, chemicals in the plastics from burned cars, and industrial toxins. The small size allows these particles to penetrate deeply into the lungs, causing not only asthma and COPD but sometimes heart disease and lung cancer. Recent studies indicate a link between long-term PM 2.5 exposure and dementia. Longer wildfire seasons put more people at risk, with health agencies around the world issuing air quality alerts during fire season.

Climate change endangers human health. For now, we can only try to protect ourselves from smoke, but we can work to reduce the danger for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.


Rebecca Phillips is retired from the faculty of WVU Parkersburg and is a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action and the Fort Street Pollinator Habitat coordinating committee.