Environmental monitoring in Fort McMurray
Air, ash, soil and water testing in the Fort McMurray region.
In response to the wildfire, we partnered with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) to monitor air, ash and soil quality in the Fort McMurray region.
Initial monitoring results were posted online as they became available (i.e. before all quality assurance and quality control work was completed) to help experts understand what hazards may be present to returning residents.
Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health removed all restrictions for re-entry and re-occupation of the area in November 2016.
- Read the Public Health Recommendations for Re-entry Planning in the Urban and Rural Areas of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (Nov 21, 2016) (0.1 MB)
Final report on air, ash and soil testing
In May 2018, the Government of Alberta published a final technical summary document of the air, ash and soil monitoring, and related rapid health risk assessments that were done both during and after the wildfire.
The Horse River Wildfire Response Technical Summary Document is the final interpretation and collection of environmental monitoring data and assessments used to help experts understand the immediate health hazards and risks to residents returning to Fort McMurray.
This final report includes all the appropriate quality control and scientific review. It summarizes the potential risks to human health from typical contaminants from a wildfire and can be used to inform future response activities for similar emergency events.
The report indicates:
- there is no further contamination to the soil, air or key public spaces (like gardens or playgrounds) from debris or damage that resulted from the wildfire
- no further monitoring or remediation work is needed for the air or soil as a result of the wildfire
The report has two parts:
- Part one includes high level summaries from literature searches for relevant health issues as part of the rapid response to the wildfire, including:
- human health concerns due to wildfires
- background information on the air quality health index
- contaminants of potential concern in ash, soot and air in wildfires and urban fires
- the effect of forest fires on soil
- Part two includes:
- health risk assessments for ash and soil samples in fire-affected areas collected during and immediately after the fire
- human health risk assessment for the incorporation of ash into garden soil
- summary of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s remediation program
- summary of the assessment of post clean-up health risks, based on the results of the post-remedial soil sampling program
The report includes the initial testing results previously posted to this website.
Tips for residents
Gardening tips in fire-affected areas
Results from soil sampling show it is safe to grow and eat food from backyard or community gardens in the area.
Wildfires can affect soil quality. The results also showed poor soil quality in a few areas, which could affect plant growth.
Below are some steps people can take to improve the soil quality in their gardens:
- Check to see if all ash and debris has been removed. Remove any large deposits of ash or debris using appropriate personal protective equipment such as gloves, long sleeve shirts and masks. A thin layer of ash (less than 0.2 centimetres) can be incorporated into the soil without causing any health or safety concerns by tilling to a depth of about 15 centimetres. If you are concerned about remaining ash or debris, you may wish to contact your insurance company to inquire about further remediation or clean-up activities.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables from your garden by running them under water before eating, even if the food will be peeled or cooked. This is generally a good practice that will help remove dirt and bacteria.
- You can test the pH of your soil by getting a testing kit from a garden centre. You should take pH readings from multiple areas of the garden. Soil that is greater than pH 9 (alkaline) may have been affected by the wildfire. Products that will acidify the soil (lower the pH) can be purchased from garden centres and applied based on the manufacturer’s instructions. Organic compost can also increase soil acidity if applied regularly.
- Wildfires can make soil repel water, which can contribute to soil erosion. You can test if your soil is water repellant by placing a drop of water on the surface of the soil. The water will bead and will not penetrate the soil if it is water repellant. You can break the water repellant layer of soil using a garden hoe or similar instrument. You can also add weed-free straw or weed-free straw fibre to the soil, or build a raised bed over top of the affected soil.
- Wildfires can result in the loss of organic matter, soil nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and potassium) and the death of soil microbial communities. You can add weed-free straw and compost to wildfire-affected soil to help replace organic matter, nutrients and beneficial organisms. You can also add fertilizer based on the manufacturer’s instructions and the type of plants being grown.
There are several things you can do with your yard and garden to help protect your home from a fire:
- Choose fire-resistant plants for your yard. Characteristics of fire-resistant plants include moist, supple leaves, minimal dead vegetation, water-like sap with little odour and low amounts of sap or resin material.
- Avoid having highly combustible materials such as bark or pine needle mulches and piled wood within 10 metres of your home.
- Keep a 1.5 metre horizontal non-combustible surface around the outer walls of your home, such as gravel mulch or decorative crushed rock mulch.
- Keep your lawn mowed to less than 10 centimetres.
- More information on FireSmart homes and yards and a list of fire-resistant plants can be found here:
Testing for asbestos in air and bulk ash samples showed no detectable levels of asbestos.
Testing was done on a broad scale and does not represent potential risk from asbestos for individual homes.
Homeowners with concerns about potential asbestos in their homes should address these concerns with their insurance providers and/or contractor. The testing of asbestos is up to the homeowner to arrange (e.g. through insurance and contractor) for their own site. This includes concerns about potential cross-contamination from other sites.
Proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be used if presence of asbestos is suspected.
Indoor air quality
Some residents are choosing to have their indoor air tested. The following information is intended to assist those who may choose to test indoor air quality in their homes.
- Indoor air can be affected by outdoor air, and by many things that we do in our homes including the personal care products used, natural gas or wood burning appliances, household cleaners, insect repellants or pesticides.
- Given the variety and sources of indoor air pollutants, it is not always possible to determine the source of pollutants from an indoor air sample.
- This variability in our indoor air environments can mean that, air quality testing may not yield the information desired. It is better to take measures to improve air quality
Improving indoor air quality
- Cleaning/ laundering or replacing household items and surfaces, especially those that could be described as porous, upholstered or plush (bedding, upholstery, stuffed toys) is the best way to reduce the impacts of smoke and dust on indoor air quality.
- Ventilating by opening the windows, when the outdoor air quality is good and there is no debris removal or construction work happening in the neighbourhood, will also improve indoor air quality.
- Using and regularly replacing a HEPA grade furnace filter, or shutting air intake and recirculating the HVAC system and keeping windows and doors closed when outdoor air quality is poor or when there is debris removal or heavy equipment operation occurring nearby will help to maintain indoor air quality.
- Air scrubbers can improve indoor air quality. They work by drawing air through a HEPA filter.
- Do not use air cleaners that produce ozone. Inhaling ozone is not good for human health.
Hiring contractors to test indoor air
- If you decide to hire a contractor to test indoor air, be prepared to explain what your concerns are so that they can target their air test to match your concerns.
- It is better to take indoor air samples after cleaning has taken place.
- Contractors should be willing to answer your questions and discuss their methods and instruments with you. Methods will be different for different types of air pollutants (chemicals, mould, asbestos), and will depend on suspected sources.
- Contractors should be able and willing to explain the limitations of the testing they are proposing and on the interpretation of the results. They should explain what criteria or guidelines they will use to interpret air quality testing results.
- Government departments and agencies cannot interpret the work of an independent contractor because of the range of methods and instruments available for use.
- Ask contractors to provide information about their accreditation and to provide references.
- Contractors that are registered or certified professionals or technicians (in fields such as engineering, chemistry, agrology/environmental sciences, occupational or public health) are more likely to have training and experience relevant to the work they are performing.
- Certified and registered professionals or technicians should be reported to their respective organization if you suspect they are operating outside of their sphere of expertise.