‘The house smells like a bonfire’: how we’re grappling with wildfire smoke

We asked Narwhal readers across the country how they’re dealing with hazy skies. Where there’s smoke, there’s misinformation?

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A photo of a toddler indoors with gloomy smoke outside, next to it a selfie of a woman wearing a mask in her garden outside.
Toddlers trapped inside. Gardening with asthma, with a mask on. Ash dust settling on car windows.

These are a few of the stories we’ve heard from Narwhal readers after we asked about how you’re grappling with wildfire smoke that’s been blanketing cities across the country.

“This is a photo of my 18-month-old sitting on his learning tower after repeatedly tapping the window because he wanted to go outside,” wrote Jemma Dooreleyers from her home in Inverary, Ont. “He doesn’t understand that it’s not safe so if I’m not distracting him with something else, he taps on the windows or the doors.”

“​​​​The house smells like a bonfire — we don’t have an air purifier,” said Sarah McGuire in Norwood, Ont. “My toddler has a respiratory virus right now and we ended up in the ER Monday after her breathing became rapid — the smoke is compounding the problem.”

For Don Ross, who lives in Ontario’s Quinte region — which at one point this week had the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in the country — the takeaway was clear: climate change is wreaking havoc. 
The words 'climate change' are seen written out on an ashy window.
“​​I wrote this message in the rear window of our Honda Civic, as the ash dust settled out of the air, to illustrate the message of how much climate change is influencing these record fires so early in 2023.”

Climate change. It should go without saying that this is a massive driver behind the increasing number and severity of wildfires and their effects on the health of humans, wildlife and ecosystems. And yet, the disinformation and misinformation flowing around the web this week, and even in submissions from some of our own readers, highlight the need to make this all the more clear.

No, arson is not the reason behind all these wildfires. Yes, some wildfires are human-caused, from campfires to cigarette butts on backroads to sparks from old ATVs. But the cause of the vast majority of fire damage to forests in Canada? Lightning.

No matter the originating cause, increasingly dry conditions spurred by climate change mean these fires are spreading more quickly — and we’re all dealing with the consequences.

So as stories come out about how you can protect your health (important!) it’s critical that we don’t lose sight of how we got here in the first place.

Because the companies that have been, and continue to be, major contributors to carbon emissions? They’re still helping to set the agenda on what our governments do (and don’t do) about the climate crisis.

Just today, our climate investigations reporter Carl Meyer broke a story revealing how Canadian oil giant Suncor helped write the “first draft” of a federal climate change strategy that’s now over a year late. What’s more, Suncor and fellow oil rival Shell have been at the table as part of an advisory group on carbon capture that government officials have kept from the public for two years.

As for all the misinformation out there on the wildfires? Our team is working away on a fact check to help readers make sense of what’s true and what’s not. Stay tuned for the story next week.

Take care and mind your misinformation,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience
Arik Ligeti headshot
Nisg̱a’a youth play games in the Gingolx village longhouse during a three-day oolichan science camp.

8 pieces of good news

Amidst all the smokey headlines, we’ve got some good news to share: The Narwhal took home eight 2023 Digital Publishing Awards last Friday — tied for the most of any news organization in Canada!

Ontario reporter Emma McIntosh, who was awarded the prestigious emerging excellence prize, was praised by the judges for getting politicians and policymakers to “sit up and take notice.” It’s this reporting in an era of climate fatigue, they said, that has made readers pay close attention, too.

“Her reporting could serve as a model for how to do journalism that stands out in an age of information overload.”

The Narwhal’s award-winning reporting is only made possible by a small percentage of our readers who give what they can. If you believe in independent environmental journalism dedicated to uncovering problems and highlighting solutions, please consider becoming a member today.


This week in The Narwhal

Hans and Judy Ning with their chickens at Paper Kite Farm.
They left the city for rural Ontario during the pandemic — and they’re still farming
By Alicia Cox Thomson
Adventurous customers and open-minded communities proved easier for these racialized farmers to find than affordable land in southern Ontario.

Aerial photo of industrial facilities with large amounts of white smoke or vapour coming out.
Suncor helped write ‘first draft’ of Canadian plan for tackling carbon emissions
By Carl Meyer

An old-growth stump remains in an old clearcut in the Caycuse watershed
Provinces and territories commit to national biodiversity strategy — here’s what it means for nature
By Ainslie Cruickshank
Baby eels, also known as elvers.
‘It doesn’t go away’: another violent fishing season in Atlantic Canada
By Moira Donovan


What we’re reading

Michelle Gamage writes about the highly developed Iona Island (xʷəyeyət) — and if it can be transformed to save tanking salmon populations — in The Tyee.

For Vox, Benji Jones answers four basic questions about Canadian wildfires, and Hannah Ritchie makes the case for the right kind of climate optimism.
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‘Treated like machines’: wildfire fighters describe a mental health crisis on the frontlines

Note: This story discusses mental health and suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, there’s 24/7 phone support available with Talk Suicide Canada: 1-833-456-4566, or text...

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