What is the economic cost of wildfire smoke?

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Air quality in Windsor, Ont., was among the worst in the world in late June, as wildfires raged in northeastern Canada and Quebec. Here, the Detroit skyline is barely visible through smoke and haze on June 29. (Dax Melmer/CBC)

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When tallying the economic toll of climate change, flooding tops the list in Canada. But the wildfire smoke that has blanketed many parts of North America this summer also comes with a financial cost.

Wildfires release fine particulate matter known as PM2.5, which is made up of tiny particles 2.5 microns in diameter or less (that’s roughly 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair). Those particles can enter the lungs and bloodstream and are particularly harmful for those with pre-existing conditions.

At the height of the haze in June, baseball games and Broadway shows were cancelled, schools closed and flights postponed. A growing body of research is trying to put a dollar figure on the larger economic fallout.

A forthcoming paper in the Review of Economics and Statistics estimates that between 2007 and 2019, U.S. earnings were reduced by an average of $125 billion a year because of wildfires. 

“Air quality matters for more than just health outcomes,” David Molitor, the study’s co-author and an associate professor of finance and economics at the University of Illinois, said in an interview. “It shows up in the statistics for economic productivity.”

The researchers found smoke exposure can decrease income across a range of sectors, from manufacturing to farming to real estate, and that older workers and people of colour were disproportionately affected.

The paper drew on satellite imagery of wildfire smoke, air quality records and labour market data in the U.S.

“One of the things that really surprised me about wildfire smoke is that in the United States, the geography of wildfire smoke is very different from the geography of fires,” said Molitor. “It turns out that the Midwest U.S. experiences, on average, some of the highest number of days of smoke per year. We don’t have a lot of fires there, but just a lot of smoke.”

Another study, published last month in the journal Science of the Total Environment, concluded smoke particulates from wildfires could ultimately lead to between 4,000 and 9,000 premature deaths in the U.S. and cost a staggering $36 billion to $82 billion a year in health care.

Shuai Pan, the lead author, had previously looked at the effects of pollution from the transportation sector, but became interested in the consequences of wildfire smoke while doing his doctoral work in the U.S. 

Epidemiological research suggests exposure to wildfire smoke is associated with increased mortality and certain common respiratory diseases, Pan said. 

“It’s not news that wildfire causes air pollution that has an impact on human health, but we really wanted to provide some numbers,” said Pan, a postdoctoral researcher at Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology in China.

For the study, Pan and his fellow researchers used satellite wildfire emission and air quality data gathered from 2012 to 2014 to create a model estimating how smoke from wildfires could impact human health and economies.

For instance, Los Angeles — downwind from many of the fires in the western U.S. — may see 119 premature deaths annually, and $1.07 billion in financial burden, the study said. Those numbers would be far higher if the research had drawn on this summer’s smoky air, Pan said. 

In the midst of Canada’s record wildfire season this year, Dave Sawyer, an environmental economist at the Climate Institute of Canada, tried to calculate the health cost of smoke in this country. 

He figured that during a particularly smoky stretch from June 4 to 8, the estimated price tag of smoke-related health care alone was $1.28 billion.

Sawyer said the economic toll of wildfire smoke is yet another reason to act on climate change. 

In the meantime, Molitor said more research is needed on the most effective ways to reduce harmful exposure.

“I think that’s where behavioural adjustments and adaptations have the potential to play a big role,” he said.

“Putting air filtration in your home … or in offices or in public schools may go a long way to helping to reduce the effects.”

Let me tell you an interesting story “My spouse and I were discussing our next vehicle. I suggested that by the time we need one, there will be (hopefully) more infrastructure for electric vehicles and buying an electric car would be a smart, and responsible, move. His comment was that in abandoning a gas-powered car, you’re just substituting for a natural gas power plant, i.e., swapping one source of emissions for another, and so you might as well go for the gasoline vehicle.

“My response was that Canada’s electricity was 80 per cent renewables/hydro-electric and there was a fair chance the source of electrical power would not use fossil fuels. But in truth, in the Greater Toronto Area, I’m not sure what the real answer would be.

“Do you know? Personally, I think it’s useful for anyone across Canada to know where the power that feeds into their homes comes from. Can you shed light?”

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Nishad Islam co-ordinates planting events at the Friends of the Rouge Watershed, and sees direct benefits for local residents near restored habitats. (Inayat Singh/CBC)

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Metals like cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese have been mined on land for years, but as the global energy transition gathers pace, there is a consensus that the terrestrial reserves of these minerals aren’t enough. Making things like electric car batteries and wind turbines will require many more “critical minerals.” For example, the International Energy Agency estimates the world will need 19 times more nickel by 2040 to meet its decarbonization targets.

And so interest has turned to the critical minerals lurking deep in the ocean — specifically, in a remote region of the Pacific Ocean called the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ). The company with the best chance of being first to mine them is The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian-based firm headed by an Australian CEO named Gerard Barron. 

But that depends on the UN-affiliated International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, this month to write regulations for deep sea mining, which scientists and environmentalists have said threatens ecosystems in need of preservation.

The ISA’s 167 member countries (plus the European Union) are obligated to accept licence applications from companies that want to begin mining. But there is still skepticism. Earlier this week, Canada announced it supported an interim moratorium on deep sea mining, signalling that it wouldn’t agree to mining regulations until it had seen more science on how to do it with the least impact on the environment.

“We recognize the importance of marine ecosystems as a climate regulator, and will continue to take and advocate for a precautionary approach to development,” Canadian Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in a joint statement with the ministers of fisheries and oceans and Global Affairs Canada.

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Tomlinson Park is an unlikely oasis of lush greenery. 

The park is in Markham, Ont., a suburb at the northeastern edge of Toronto, and hugs the Rouge River. On a cloudy day in June, hundreds of volunteers planted trees and shrubs here as part of an effort to restore a barren part of the park.

“In 10 to 15 years, [the trees] should grow up to 20, 30, even 50 feet [15 metres]. And it should look like a nice, thriving forest,” said Nishad Islam (photo above), environmental project co-ordinator at the Friends of the Rouge Watershed, which orchestrated the event.

The Friends have a decades-long history in this part of the Greater Toronto Area, advocating for nearby Rouge National Urban Park, the largest urban park in Canada, almost 20 times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

Many conservationists consider it one of the best examples of nature restoration in the country. It’s home to 1,700 plant and animal species, including 42 species at risk, a place where people come to camp, hike and picnic — while also being surrounded by millions of people in Canada’s largest metropolitan area, with Highway 401, North America’s busiest, running right through it.

The work here is part of efforts across Canada to restore nature and bring back biodiversity — as governments and communities realize the importance of green spaces in fighting climate change and preparing for extreme weather.

The work is backed by new research from the World Wildlife Fund that shows that areas of top importance for ecological restoration are also near where people live, especially in southern Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec.

Unlike environmental protection, which involves establishing parks and conservation areas to protect natural areas, restoration involves going into degraded areas and planting trees and shrubs to restore the land, approaching what it was before human activity changed it.

At the COP15 UN biodiversity conference in Montreal last December, countries around the world reached a landmark deal to save nature and establish targets for protecting and restoring ecosystems.

“We saw really ambitious goals and targets committed to by the government of Canada,” said James Snider, vice-president of science, knowledge and innovation at WWF Canada and a co-author on the study. “But now that we have these ambitious goals and targets, we actually have to begin to implement them.”

Using field and satellite data, researchers calculated carbon storage potential and benefits to biodiversity for the areas of Canada that have been transformed by humans. 

The study considered three potential restoration targets — from five million hectares to 15 million hectares. In all scenarios, the most important areas were in southern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba — also the places that have been modified the most by human activity.

Snider says restoring those areas will have direct benefits for people, such as protecting water supplies, providing clean air and preventing floods.

But the location of the tree planting event along the Rouge River also showed the challenge of doing restoration so close to where people live. The WWF’s analysis didn’t include urban areas with residential development because it does not suggest displacing people for nature.

Michael Petryk from Tree Canada, a national organization that helped organize the Markham event, said groups like his have to get creative to find spaces to restore, since there’s intense pressure to build more homes.

Jill Crosthwaite works at another restoration project, at a small but ecologically crucial island in Lake Erie, about 400 kilometres west of Toronto. Pelee Island is an important staging ground for migratory birds, welcoming more than 300 species during their travels. 

The Nature Conservancy of Canada, a conservation group that acquires land to protect and restore it, has restored shorelines, forests and wetlands on the island. 

“If we’re working somewhere like Pelee Island, it’s got amazing diversity as it is. It’s got a lot of species that are quite rare and not found in many other places in Canada,” Crosthwaite said. 

“A lot of those species are really anxious for more habitat. So they’ll get in there and start using it quite quickly.”

Crosthwaite said the NCC looks for lands close to important habitats — like forests and wetlands — and works to restore them based on what those nearby habitats look like. A lot of the land they work on has been converted by humans for more than a century — but once restored, it can take just a year or two for animal and bird species to start moving back in.

There are many benefits to humans as well — known as “ecosystem services.” Most importantly, restored wetlands hold rainfall and control the amount of flooding, and the plants in those wetlands help filter the water and clean out pollutants like fertilizers before they all flows out into the lake, Crosthwaite said.

The new habitats can also be places for people to visit.

“That really gives people a place they can go and walk, they can get exercise, they can connect with nature,” Crosthwaite said. 

“They can see things that maybe they wouldn’t have been able to see.”

Longer seasons and more complex fires have been making the job tougher in recent years

Fighting wildfires has always been a physically demanding job, but attention is increasingly being paid in Canada to its psychological toll.

Wildland firefighters and professionals who work with them say the job has become mentally tougher as fires have become larger and more complex, increasingly getting close to or reaching areas where people live.

I hear it over and over again that these are unprecedented conditions, and yet every every other week there’s new unprecedented conditions,” said Steve Lemon, an incident commander with BC Wildfire Service.

Lemon, who said he has lost five colleagues to suicide, is also a safety and well-being officer trying to accelerate a cultural shift toward more discussions about mental health within firefighting.

Colleen Kamps, a psychotherapist who works with the non-profit Tema Foundation, has been counselling wildland firefighters working in Nova Scotia this year.

The organization received 150 phone calls after advertising a campaign that included free crisis counselling.

Kamps said one firefighter with more than 20 years of experience told her he can handle his job, but at times this season, he has not been able to stop crying.

She said she gives firefighters permission to sit with those emotions instead of ignoring them.

“My thing is, it’s OK not to be OK; you’re allowed to have feelings,” she said.

As Canada reckons with its worst wildfire season ever, crew leaders and firefighting company managers are on alert for warning signs of mental-health struggles.

“We’ve experienced what we usually experience in a year in two months already,” said Andrew Cardinal, business manager for the Saddle Lake Smoke Eaters — an Indigenous-owned wildland firefighting company about two hours northeast of Edmonton.

Cardinal said the Smoke Eaters typically start working after the May long weekend, but this year, they began in April.

Experts say climate change is bringing warmer and drier conditions, leading to longer wildfire seasons. For firefighters, that means more time spent in remote areas, far away from family. 

Cardinal said help is available for his employees — from elders in the community and programs farther afield. 

His company is also planning to hold an all-day training session on mental wellness for office staff, since they, too, can work stressful, 14-hour days.

Harold Cardinal, who works for the Smoke Eaters and has fought fires since he was 17, said he saw a counsellor after being in an all-terrain machine accident two years ago.

“The more you talk about it to somebody, it helps,” he said.

Danny Clarke, a wildland firefighter who works for Fire Wise Forest Solutions in southern Alberta, said crew members try to support each other when fatigue sets in around day eight of a 14-day tour. 

“When we’re out here, we all create bonds and we basically become a family,” he said.

Provincial wildfire agencies in British Columbia and Alberta have ramped up mental health supports, offering peer support programs, 24/7 phone counselling and specialized resilience training.

Research from Nicola Cherry, the chair of occupational health at the University of Alberta’s department of medicine, suggests peer support and debriefing can be effective.

She tracked a cohort of firefighters sent to Fort McMurray in 2016 and found that those working for fire services that provided those supports had less anxiety and less depression than those who did not. 

“We now know they work, they’re useful and there should be systems in place so that they can be called on,” she said.

Steve Lemon said the BC Wildfire Service is increasing the number of days off between successive tours to help combat long-term fatigue. The service is also partnering with the University of Northern British Columbia to study how wildfire affects workers’ mental health.

Lemon said recent efforts are making a difference. The counselling hotline received an average of 91 calls per month last year, down from a larger volume of more disturbing calls in 2019.

Jarret Whitbread, a wildfire management specialist with Alberta Wildfire, said he’s seeing progress in Alberta as well. 

Whitbread said more people are now talking about mental health within fire crew, breaking down stigma that has surrounded it in the past. 

“The No. 1 thing we can do is bring awareness to it,” he said.

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