Partnership JournalismMay 28, 2024

Last year’s Canadian wildfire smoke may have killed more than 100 in Michigan alone

By Brian Allnutt (Planet Detroit) and Melba Newsome (Climate Central)

This story was produced through a partnership between Planet Detroit and Climate Central. Climate Central researcher Kaitlyn Trudeau contributed data reporting.

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June Mack holds and uses her nebulizer, a device that creates a medicated mist for those with asthma and other breathing issues. Photo by Nick Hagen.

The headaches, eye irritation and breathing difficulties that Jennifer Fassbender experienced last year when wildfire smoke drifted over Detroit returned two weeks ago when smoke from western Canada hit once again.

Fires burning in drought-afflicted forests in Canada blanketed Detroit for several weeks last summer. The haze returned this month after high temperatures stoked the revival of wildfires that had quietly festered through the winter.

The effects of wildfire smoke can be insidious, crippling and even deadly, with seniors, children and those with lung and other health conditions among the most vulnerable.

Fassbender was recently treated for breast cancer and deals with several chronic health conditions, including Lyme disease and Hashimoto’s disease.

Fassbender volunteers for the Detroit Hamtramck Coalition for Advancing Healthy Environments, whose efforts to survey residents about health impacts caused by the area’s high levels of industrial pollution were hindered by last year’s smoke.

“We were unable to do that because of the just incredible air quality concerns,” Fassbender said. She estimates that the grassroots environmental organization canceled around 30% of their outreach days because of smoke, illustrating the impact that the emergent threat of wildfire smoke is having on communities already affected by high pollution levels.

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Jennifer Fassbender poses for a portrait at the Circle Forest where she volunteers. The Circle Forest is a natural habitat restoration project on the Eastside of Detroit, a goal of which is to improve air quality in the surrounding neighborhood. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Gerdella Moody, a retiree living in northwest Detroit, was also hit hard by last year’s smoke. Although she is not an asthma sufferer, she became short of breath and took to wearing face masks she had on hand because of Covid.

“I couldn’t really catch my breath,” she said. “I just kept thinking, ‘this can’t be healthy’.” Eventually, she went to an urgent care center and was prescribed an inhaler for her breathing problems.

Midwesterners are less accustomed to living with smoke than Western residents for whom ashy summers have in recent years become stubbornly inescapable. As the effects of heat-trapping pollution and other environmental changes continue to drive more wildfire activity, smoke waves are expected to intensify across the Midwest and elsewhere.

Just as concerning to Moody as the smoke was a lack of information about how to handle the problem. The city of Detroit was slow to send out emergency alerts, and Moody didn’t think about getting an air filter at the time.

Lacking central air, she would open her windows to cool down her house and then close them as the smoke crept indoors.

“I was on this little unhealthy merry-go-round,” she said.

While Canada’s vast forests are naturally prone to wildfires, prolonged drought and warming temperatures have recently stoked severe fire seasons, the smoke from which has drifted over the U.S. The most recent flare-ups were driven by high temperatures in British Columbia, which an analysis using Climate Central’s Climate Shift Index tool showed were made five times more likely because of climate change.

Federal satellites showed smoke plumes moving over the Northeastern U.S. from Canada on May 10, with air monitors detecting smokey conditions in Detroit for about a week starting May 13.

Canada’s 2023 wildfire season shattered previous records, scorching tens of millions of acres of forests from coast to coast. The 2024 fire season is off to a quick start, in part because of a phenomenon known as overwintering, when a fire persists through the winter months and reignites when fire season begins,

“Some people call them zombie fires because they don’t die and have woken up when the snow is gone,” says Dr. Mike Flannigan, the Science Director of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta. “They smolder underground. Eventually, spring comes, and things get warm, dry and windy, it pops to the surface and if there’s available fuel or vegetation, start spreading. That loaded the dice to a very active spring.”

So far, the pattern seems to be repeating itself with hundreds of overwintering fires in British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and the Northwest Territories. Still, Flannigan doubts the conditions are ripe for a repeat of the severity of the previous year’s blazes.

Across Michigan, Stanford University research has shown smoke from wildfires helped drive a recent reversal of air quality gains from the U.S. Clean Air Act of the 1970s, which limited air pollution from power plants, tailpipes and other fossil fuel sources.

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Some two dozen Detroit residents may have died as a result of last year’s Canadian smoke, according to unpublished estimates from a Cornell University study. The estimate for deaths across Michigan was roughly ten times that figure, with mortality across the Lower 48 estimated at 1,400.

The study used air quality data and tools developed by the federal government to estimate mortality from air pollution. It’s still going through the scientific peer review process, meaning the estimates may yet be adjusted.

In areas affected by the smoke, “the counties that had the highest deaths were the counties that have the most people in them — they’re the urban centers,” said Alistair Hayden, a Cornell professor who led the research.

The Cornell research and prior studies show wildfire impacts reach far beyond their flames. “The total death toll that we estimated is higher than the recorded death toll of any wildfire in U.S. history,” Hayden said.

Wildfire smoke and hospitalizations

Wildfires led to an increased need for medical care, both during the smoke events and for days afterward, physicians reported.

“There were more calls to our offices from our patients reporting increasing cough, wheezing or shortness of breath,” Dr. Ayman Soubani, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine for the Detroit Medical Center, told Planet Detroit by email. “There were also increased emergency room (and) urgent care visits around the metro area.”

Older residents face elevated dangers, due in part to a “higher prevalence of pre-existing lung and cardiac conditions,” limited mobility, and a “higher prevalence of cognitive impairment, which may affect their ability to make sound decisions and respond to danger,” Soubani said.

Physicians across Metro Detroit reported increased visits for respiratory issues among healthy individuals and those with pre-existing conditions. However, Soubani said most of those who came to the ER weren’t hospitalized and could continue their treatment at home.

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An air purifier provided to June Mack from Health Equity Advancement and Leadership (HEAL) sits in her living room. Photo by Nick Hagen.

When smoke is in the air, Soubani suggests avoiding spending prolonged periods outdoors or engaging in strenuous outdoor activities, staying hydrated, and using air conditioning and air purifiers while indoors. On days when the Air Quality Index reaches the ‘unhealthy level,’ he recommends wearing an N95 mask outdoors. However, he said patients with severe heart and lung conditions should check with their healthcare providers because using these masks can make it more difficult to breathe.

Other factors like heat and humidity can exacerbate the impact of poor air quality, Soubani said. Humidity can aggravate asthma, while heat and sunlight cause chemical reactions among particles of pollution that form ozone. Wildfires can also produce gasses that contribute to ozone, which, along with PM 2.5, was responsible for 22 air quality alerts in Metro Detroit in 2023.

A growing need for help

June Mack, a retiree living on the northwest side of Detroit,, says more needs to be done to help those dealing with the city’s air pollution. She has had asthma since childhood and said her condition is exacerbated by the city’s poor air quality, which is especially evident on high-ozone days.

Initially, she avoided the worst effects of the smoke because she mostly stayed indoors.

Mack has central air conditioning and an air purifier and has controlled her asthma over the last few years with an inhaler. But the air pollution eventually caught up with her, leading to a headache and then sinus problems that developed into vertigo. This caused double vision, which forced her to wear an eye patch and give up driving for several months.

Still, Mack is grateful for the HEAL asthma program offered by the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America’s Michigan chapter, which helped her learn how to better manage her asthma, showing her the correct way to use a nebulizer and how to deal with the mouth irritation the medication sometimes caused by using a hydrogen peroxide rinse. Soubani said that more education was needed, especially in high-risk communities, on the dangers created by air pollution and wildfire smoke and action plans for what to do on poor air quality days.

Moody, the retiree in northwest Detroit, echoed these concerns and said that low-income residents could also use help purchasing air purifiers, which can cost several hundred dollars.

The need for such interventions could increase along with climate change and a predicted rise in extreme wildfire years. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that under a high-warming scenario, wildfire smoke could lead to 27,800 excess deaths in the U.S. annually by 2050.

A scientific review by academic and federal scientists published in 2020 showed that wildfires dramatically impacted air quality in recent years by exposing millions of people to elevated and sometimes hazardous concentrations of fine particles for extended periods.

And a more recent study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society estimated “a large number of excess deaths” in the U.S. from wildfire smoke from 2018 to 2020. It estimated that smoke contributed to 10,660 premature or low-weight births during that period.

Mack worries that more wildfires could make her asthma treatment even more expensive. Currently, she pays around $40 to $50 monthly for fluticasone and vilanterol inhalers sold under the name Breo.

“I’m concerned that if the air quality is still bad…will Breo work?” she said. “Or do I have to go to something else more expensive?”