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Experts: Wildfires and air pollution

Published: 26 July 2023

Wildfires have burned through more than one million hectares in Alberta this spring and have forced thousands from their homes. Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories are also battling active fires (Globe and Mail). 

Here are some experts from McGill University who can provide comment on this issue: 

Fighting fires 

John Gradek, Faculty Lecturer, School of Continuing Studies 

“For decades, Canada has been the world leader in building versatile and high-performing water bombers used by civil protection agencies around the world. Production stopped in 2016 for these aircraft when Bombardier sold their know-how to deHavilland and Viking Aircraft. Canadian governments have decided to reject financial support for the resumption of production, leaving Canada’s wildfire and forest fire protection to an aging fleet. Canada’s forests are on fire; where are the next generation of Canada’s water bombers?”

John Gradek is a Faculty Lecturer in the School of Continuing Studies, where he coordinates the Supply Chain and Operations Management and Integrated Aviation Management programs. He has held senior roles at Air Canada in operations, marketing and planning and has worked in the development and the delivery of commercial airline management programs for the International Aviation Management Training Institute. He is currently an adjudicator with the Transportation Appeal Tribunal of Canada.

john.gradek [at] (English, French)

Tracking fires

Flavie Pelletier, PhD Candidate, Department of Natural Resource Sciences

“Spatial and temporal patterns of forest fires are rapidly shifting due to the mounting pressure of a changing climate. Forest fires lead to increased carbon emissions as they result in biomass loss, an important carbon sink. As such, near-real time mapping of forest fires can aid us in rapidly understanding and minimizing the consequences linked to biomass loss.”

Flavie Pelletier is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences. Her research focuses on the near-real time monitoring of forest change like wildfire and timber harvesting, and its application to track forest aboveground biomass dynamics.

flavie.pelletier [at] (English, French)

Pollution and air quality

Stephane Bilodeau, Adjunct Professor, Department of Bioengineering

"Wildfires release harmful particles and contaminants into the air, posing a significant risk to public health both indoors and outdoors. The widespread threat of air pollution has already directly impacted the healthcare systems in most provinces, where many people suffer from health issues. Therefore, it is crucial to prioritize improving indoor air quality (IAQ) to promote better health outcomes. The science supports the need for immediate action to improve IAQ. It's not enough to rely on recommendations alone, as the effects of poor IAQ extend beyond individuals, impacting society as a whole."

Stephane Bilodeau is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Bioengineering. Both an academic and an entrepreneur in clean technology, he is amember of Engineers Canada and Chairman of its Public Affairs Advisory Committee. His work encompasses indoor air quality, ventilation, and thermodynamics, which integrate solutions that consider artificial intelligence, health, safety, energy efficiency, sustainability, and climate change.

stephane.bilodeau3 [at] (English, French)

Parisa Ariya, James McGill Professor, Departments of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and Chemistry

"Several pollutants, such as black carbon and other particulate matter, and gaseous health hazards, such as carbon monoxide, are emitted. Hence, their impacts on visibility, air quality, and health should be considered."

Parisa Ariya is a James McGill Professor cross-appointed to the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and Chemistry. A world leader in the study of bioaerosol transmission, her research explores major fundamental and applied research questions involving aerosols and gaseous and trace metal pollutants of relevance to the Earth's atmosphere and to human health.

parisa.ariya [at] (English, French)

Health risks 

Scott Weichenthal, Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health

The effect of inhaling smoke from a forest fire is like that of inhaling smoke from a cigarette. In the short-term, this could mean increased hospital visits, especially among people with existing health conditions who have trouble breathing.”

Scott Weichenthal is an Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health. His research program is dedicated to identifying and evaluating environmental risk factors for chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

scott.weichenthal [at] (English)

Jill Baumgartner, Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics & Occupational Health and Department of Equity, Ethics and Policy

“The biggest health threat from wildfire smoke is from very small, microscopic particles that can penetrate deep into your lungs and can cause a wide range of health problems, from less serious ones like burning eyes and a runny nose to very serious chronic heart and lung diseases. In fact, thousands of Canadians die every year from exposure to air pollution from sources that wildfire smoke.”

Jill Baumgartner is an Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar cross-appointed to the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics & Occupational Health and the Department of Equity, Ethics and Policy. She also is an Associate Member of the Bieler School of Environment. She studies exposure to environmental pollutants and their affect on human health in the context of urbanization and development.

jill.baumgartner [at] (English)

Climate change

Mohammad Reza Alizadeh, Researcher, Department of Bioresource Engineering

“Climate change is a key driver behind the escalating intensity and frequency of wildfires, leaving devastating impacts on our ecosystems and communities, and demanding urgent action to mitigate its consequences.”

Mohammad Reza Alizadeh is a Researcher working with the Department of Bioresource Engineering at McGill University and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His expertise lies in understanding the intricate dynamics of climate extremes including heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, and floods, with a particular emphasis on assessing the socio-environmental impacts of these phenomena. His research extends to investigating compound extreme events, human-climate interactions, and the development of advanced hydrological forecasting models.

mohammadreza.alizadeh [at] (English)

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