Smoke Seasons – Tracing Transient Smoke Across Northern Borders

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Editor’s Note: This is the seventh post in the Northern Borders and Boundaries series. You can read other posts in this series here.

In the summer of 1950,  transient wildfire smoke from northern Canada drifted high in the atmosphere and circumnavigated the northern hemisphere. As it crossed into northern Europe, some observers of the blue-tinted sun and moon wondered if the world was ending. A long list of possible explanations were floated in the press, from dust storms in Egypt to German industrial pollution to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia – until aerial surveys confirmed its origins in a 3.5 million acre burn in the Peace River region of northern British Columbia and Alberta. It altered the colour of the sky for several days starting with Toronto and New York before moving into northern England, continental Europe, and Scandinavia.[1]  

As boreal smoke entered the atmosphere, it connected people across imagined borders and boundaries from the continental, northern/southern, state, provincial, urban/rural, to the sensory and cellular level. As they observed smoke in their skies, urban Canadians, Americans, Scotts, Danes, and Norwegians were both fascinated and disoriented by their unexpected connection to a distant northern forest on fire.

It is a story familiar to many of us. By the time this post is published in May 2021, most of the northern hemisphere will already be three months into the fire season.  The unprecedented scale and frequency of wildfire over the past decade means we now see seasonal smoke circulating in the atmosphere almost every year. In both 2018 and the comparatively quieter fire year of 2020, ash drifted from North America into Europe, and even altered forecasts on both continents.

Smoke obscuring the sun over Prince George, British Columbia during the 2017 wildfire season. Photo by author.

If the events of 1950 shows us that boundary-crossing global-scale smoke is not in itself new, the frequency and intensity of our twenty-first century fire regimes are the product of escalating climatic change. In the twenty-first century, the scale of wildfire and transient wildfire smoke has disoriented and alarmed many of us. The media calls the faded orange sun, midday darkness, and air quality warnings unprecedented, apocalyptic, and an omen of a troubled future.  Although summer headlines and environmental historians have tended to centre fire, smoke impacts more people across a greater geography than flames.[2] New research suggests transient smoke kills 339,000 people globally per year.[3] A study conducted just this year shows that wildfire smoke is more dangerous than other types of air pollution

Royal BC Archives, Forest Service Photographs, Elk Fire #7, 1951, item na-13274

Because wildfire smoke moves unevenly and unpredictably, its impacts are difficult to trace.  Beyond a general positive association with climatic warming in the twenty-first century, it does not have the simple cause-and-effect trajectory historians normally rely on to tell stories. Wind, fuel, and humidity play a substantial role in determining its place in our lives. As a result, wildfire smoke is particularly difficult to pin to the page in both history and the policy books. 

Yet our modern relationship with smoke is the product of history. In its transience, wildfire smoke connects to the exciting new environmental histories of wind, clouds, and atmosphere.[4] In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, wild smoke often mingled with factory emissions in cities and in Canada entered into debates around air quality and environmental pollution.[5] Starting in the twentieth century, newly effective Clean Air Acts may have made room for urban people to begin to notice wildfire smoke as a nuisance, but could do little to control it. 

Royal BC Archives, Forest Service Photographs, Forest Fire Near Chilliwack, 1958, item i-30044

Meanwhile, smoke has remained relatively constant in rural and northern communities. If Clean Air Acts and new sources of energy gradually diminished industrial smoke generated in urban spaces in the twentieth century, they had little impact on rural regimes. In addition to transient wildfire smoke, communities living in boreal forests regularly interacted with smoke from small local fires, food smokers, intentional slash burns, wood heat, and lumber mills.[6]

In the north, most of what we know about fire (past or present) we learn through the medium of smoke. Chronologies of historic burns come from layers of soot and ash on glaciers and lake beds in places like Greenland, Svalbard, Siberia, and the Yukon. Through deposits left by black carbon, cores taken from glaciers and sedimentary rock tell the story of a long relationship with smoke seasons.[7] When combined with the historic record, we can see patterns such as the increase of smoke during the medieval warm period and the Klondike gold rush or its decrease during the quiet years of depression. 

Royal BC Archives, Forest Service Photographs, using a firefinder Langford lookout, 1959, item na-22119

Governments, forestry operators, and insurance companies have long used smoke as a tool to ‘read’ the land. Forestry staff stationed in watchtowers distinguished between ‘intentional’ smoke (from mills and slash burns) and ‘unintentional’ wildfire smoke. They used the colour, direction, and density to make decisions about when and how to intervene in boreal fire cycles. Over time, northerners enhanced their ability to observe smoke using airplanes, radios, and fire finders. To this day, wildfire fighters use their noses first to detect hotspots. Wildfire management starts with sensing smoke. 

Smoke materially connects us across borders, real and imagined. When people breathed in wildfire smoke, they literally incorporated pieces of burned boreal forests into their bodies even if they were thousands of kilometres away from the actual flames. These regular exchanges of particulate between heart- and hinterland, human and non-human represent a transgression of bodily and geographic boundaries.

Anno Norsk Skogmuseum, Flatebrenning i Elverum i Hedmark, antakelig omkring 1950 (Surface burning in Elverum in Hedmark, probably around 1950), Digitalt Museum item SJF-F.011846

As we grapple with this summer’s smoke seasons, we should do so with the knowledge that our experiences are both precedented and not. When smoke moves transcontinentally, it connects northerners across borders in a shared experience of boreal fire. At a time when we have largely banished smoke from our urban spaces, smoke seasons unsettle us because they bring the climate crisis physically into our bodies. They are a reminder of our connection and dependence on boreal forests, across geographic borders and our nature/culture dichotomy. 


[1] Mike Flannighan and Cordy Tymstra have written a book about the fire and its smoke. See The Chinchaga Firestorm: When the Moon and Sun Turned Blue. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 2015.
[2] In addition to Stephen Pyne’s impressive bibliography, see also Cathy A. Frierson, All Russia Is Burning: A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia (University of Washington Press, 2012); Alan MacEachern, The Miramichi Fire: A History, (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020); or S. Pooley, Burning Table Mountain: An Environmental History of Fire on the Cape Peninsula (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
[3] Since this series is focused on northern borders, it is important to point out that more than 2/3rds of deaths due to smoke occur in Saharan Africa and southeast Asia, suggesting inequality in terms of who bears the greatest burdens of climate change. Fay Johnston et. al., “Estimated Global Mortality Attributable to Smoke from Landscape Fires,” Environmental Health Perspectives 120, no. 5 (May 2012): 695-701.
[4] For example, Elaine LaFay, “‘The Wind Can Blow through and Through,'” in Atlantic Environments and the American South, edited by D. Andrew Johnson, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020): 38-62.
[5] In Canada, see work by Joy Parr, Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010); Lee Thiessen, “Protesting Smoke: A Social and Political History of Vancouver Air Pollution in the 1950s and 1960s,” Urban History Review 46, no. 1 (2017): 57-70.
[6] With a few exceptions (including Parr), there has been little work on rural air and air pollution in environmental history.
[7] See, for example, Kaplan Yalcin, et. al, “A 1000-Yr Record of Forest Fire Activity from Eclipse Icefield, Yukon, Canada,” The Holocene 16, no. 2 (2006): 200-209; K.C. Taylor et. al., “Biomass Burning Recorded in the Gisp2 Ice Core: A Record from Eastern Canada?” Holocene 6, no. 1 (1996): 1-6; Dimitri Osmont et. al.,”An 800-Year High-Resolution Black Carbon Ice Core Record from Lomonosovfonna, Svalbard,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 18, no. 17 (2018): 12777-12795; or P.N. Zennaro et. al., “Fire in Ice: Two Millennia of Boreal Forest Fire History from the Greenland Neem Ice Core,” Climate of the Past 10, no. 5 (2014): 1905-1924.

Funding: This work was supported by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action, grant 891029 (Wildsmoke: Forest Fire and Our Senses in the North, 1911-1961).

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Mica Jorgenson is an environmental historian of natural resources in Canada. She works in both the academic and public sectors, and teaches periodically at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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