Get out your masks, Torontonians can expect another smoky summer, experts warn

Remember when walking around central Toronto last summer smelled like a Muskoka campfire, but in a very bad way? Well, Ontario’s fire season officially begins this week, and experts say that Torontonians can expect more smoke to choke the city this summer, considering the province experienced a dry winter.

Last year, Canada experienced record-breaking wildfires fuelled by high temperatures and widespread drought conditions. By September 2023, more than 6,132 fires had torched 16.5 million hectares of land (an area larger than Greece and more than double the 1989 record). Unlike previous years, the fires last year were widespread, from the West Coast to the Atlantic provinces, and the North.

Ontario reported more than 700 fires and 441,000 hectares of forests burned between April and October last year, almost three times as many hectares as the 10-year average.

Toronto, in particular, experienced its most polluted day last June, with PM2. 5 levels reaching more than 100 micrograms due to wildfires, meaning that PM2. 5 concentrations in the city exceeded the World Health Organization’s annual limit of 5 micrograms by 20 times.

Now, experts are concerned about how the 2024 fire season will play out. Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, told CBC News that there will likely be hazy conditions across Canada this summer, and could possibly hit Toronto depending on which way the wind blows.

“When people talk about the new normal in the weather, they have to realize there will be no new normal. It’s just evolving levels of risk and challenge” Feltmate told the CBC.

In response to last year’s unprecedented air quality impacts, Toronto Public Health prepared a Wildfire Smoke Response Strategy, with tips on how Torontonians could protect themselves against wildfire smoke. The tips were somewhat generic, advising Torontonians to stay indoors during smoke events, keep windows closed, and use air conditioning if possible if the weather is warm. Some complained that it wasn’t enough—that the city should have also announced 24/7 clean air centres, plans to help the unhoused at risk, and community clean air hubs.

Some politicians are even suggesting that the province isn’t doing enough either. Just last week, the Green Party of Ontario leader said there wasn’t enough money in the 2024 provincial budget to help deal with wildfires.

“We’re woefully unprepared for firefighting season, for flooding, for draught, for climate-fueled, extreme weather threats,” Mike Schreiner, leader of the Green Party of Ontario, said at a news conference last week Tuesday. “It isn’t even mentioned in the budget that they would have a plan to protect our lives, livelihood, and property from the increasing severity and frequency of climate-fueled weather events.”

In 2022-2023, the province spent $95 million to combat wildfires. This number jumped to $216 million in 2023-2024 but only $135 million was set aside for the 2024-2025 budget, although they noted that contingency funds could be accessed.