Monitoring Air Quality During Forest Fires

Where there is fire, there is smoke. After an abnormally dry spring, Alberta (and western Canada) is experiencing one of the worst forest fire seasons in a decade. With 1,296fires and counting so far this year, people are worried about the quality of the air in their communities.

In response to requests from communities, the Environmental Monitoring and Science Division (EMSD) (formerly AEMERA) has recently deployed four of its portable air quality monitors to northwestern Alberta. Working with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA), the Alberta Support and Emergency Response Team (ASERT) and the communities, these instruments have been set up in and around Fox Lake, Meander River, High Level and Fort Vermillion. These instruments provide real-time air monitoring data during emergencies in communities that do not already have permanent air quality stations. They work in addition to the existing 30 or so permanent air quality stations operated by EMSD and our partners that report the Air Quality Health Index2.

These instruments, known as E-BAMs (Environment Proof-Beta Attenuation Monitors), are portable devices that only need a power source and a secure, open area in which to operate. Air monitoring staff work with members of the communities to find an appropriate site for the monitors. Once set up, the E-BAMs continuously monitor particulate matter in the air. Particulate matter is particles in the air that can reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy at high levels. Particulate matter 2.5 micrograms across or smaller (PM2.5) – about one twentieth the size of a human hair – can become a health concern for some people as it can get into lung tissue3. This is why it is important to monitor their levels, particularly during forest fire season.

The E-BAMs produce hourly averages that stream to an internal database via satellite. In addition to AEMERA monitoring staff, Alberta Health Services and Canada Health have access to this live data stream so they can issue health advisories when necessary. EMSD uses this data to produce daily summary reports. These reports are available to the public at aemeris.alberta.ca.

These PM2.5 monitors will stay in the communities until the threat to air quality passes, at that point they may be deployed elsewhere in the province for similar purposes. The condition of the environment can change rapidly and EMSD adapts its monitoring to change with it. These portable monitors and the staff that deploy them embody the ability to do just that.

1 “Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Provincial Wildfire Status Situational Report” July 14, 2015 @ 10:05 AM. Web. 15 July 2015. http://wildfire.alberta.ca/wildfire-status/default.aspx

2 “Air Quality Health Index.” Government of Canada. Web. 13 July 2015. http://www.ec.gc.ca/cas-aqhi/default.asp?lang=En&n=CB0ADB16-1

Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards For Particulate Matter and Ozone.” Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards For Particulate Matter and Ozone. Web. 9 July 2015. http://esrd.alberta.ca/air/management-frameworks/canadian-ambient-air-quality-standards-for-particulate-matter-and-ozone/default.aspx