Smoke on the Water: Wildfire Impacts on Water Health

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Throughout the day, I kept looking outside as a haze of smoke slowly enveloped the city. Edmonton started disappearing around me. My lungs began to feel heavier and heavier as the smoke encroached from all directions. The river disappeared from view, then the river valley was obscured, finally the neighbouring buildings seemed to be erased from the horizon, until all I could see was grey.


Edmonton is hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest forest fire, and yet it was surrounded by thick smoke. There have been hundreds of forest fires this spring, several of which are deemed out of control. Clearly, there will be astronomical impacts on the trees, animals, and people in the areas hit by these fires. As these fires rage on, Riverkeeper can’t help but wonder: will the water be impacted by these fires as well?

Morning of May 30th vs. 3 hours later

When we associate water and fire it’s usually due to water’s fire-quenching abilities and water’s perseverance over the devastation caused by fire. But allow us to turn the tables and consider fire’s impact on water. Anyone who has experienced poor air quality due to fires has realized that smoke and ash have an impact on your health. I was wheezy, sneezing, coughing, with watery eyes and a headache. Even though I would not be considered someone at risk (like people with heart or lung conditions, pregnant women, or young children), the health impacts were noticeable. Wildfire smoke can damage your lungs, heart, and even your brain. The fine particles of smoke can be destructive on our bodies, even extending to our bodies of water.


The water that we drink can be impacted by the ash and fine particles that settle after wildfires. Last year’s wildfires caused the waters running through Cameron Falls in Southern Alberta to turn a muddy brown, highly concentrated with ash. These waters were unusually high in nitrogen and phosphorus, causing green algae concentrations to spike in the moving waters of Cameron Creek. Our waters can be inundated with sediments and nutrients from wildfire smoke. These nutrients can change the water’s chemistry, along with it changing the composition of aquatic plants, insects, amphibians, and fish. Increases in mercury, iron, dissolved organic carbon, turbidity, and debris can all potentially affect waterbodies in Western Canada following these serious forest fires. What this means for us is that the beaches where we swim, the water that we drink, and the fish that we eat could all be seriously influenced from the smoke, ash, and fire ravaging our lands.


Not only does the ash from forest fires affect water quality, so does the rapid loss of trees. Trees, bushes, and small plants dig their roots into the soil, binding it together to prevent erosion. When forest fires wipe out a whole area of trees, the soils and nutrients within them can move more quickly, seeping into bodies of water. The North Saskatchewan River is home to diverse soils, but a sudden, dramatic influx of soil could be damaging to our source of drinking water, making it much more challenging and expensive to treat.


While water is not the most vulnerable environmental feature that fires affect, the impacts can be quite severe. Fire and smoke threaten the waters that we need and love. This includes the water cherished for swimming, drinking water that is clean and affordable, and the water supporting healthy fish and wildlife. Our environment is complexly interconnected. Clean water and clean air are extremely important for our health and well-being yet both are vulnerable to smoke and fire. Forest fires are a natural part of forests cycles, but are becoming more common and more intense in our changing climate. As they continue to impact us, it is increasingly important for our health and the health of our favourite waterbodies to prevent wildfires whenever possible.


How can you help prevent wildfires

  • Always dispose of cigarettes, matches, and other smoking accessories properly
  • Avoid smoking in forests and parks during dry conditions or fire bans
  • Don’t have bonfires during dry conditions or fire bans
  • Always pay attention to bonfires, keeping water and/or flame retardants on hand in case the fire gets out of control
  • Call 911 if you see a fire that is unattended and/or out of control


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