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Particulate Pandemic: Wildfires and COVID-19

As summer heats up, a second faceless killer will join coronavirus in assaulting the Arctic: particulates. Wildfires are an annual annoyance across the High North, but COVID-19 threatens to drastically worsen this year’s burn season. 

University of British Columbia researchers recently published a study underscoring the link between wildfires and ambulance dispatches. In just one hour, the release of fine particulates caused a significant jump in emergency respiratory treatment.

Wildfires in the Arctic are potentially increasing deaths from respiratory distress

With coronavirus cases on the rise, wildfire particulates are poised to worsen symptoms and possibly increase deaths. Though evacuations may eventually be necessary, all Arctic citizens can do now is stock up on medication and air cleaners. 

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is creating more than just health difficulties this season. Firefighting mobilization and organization has been substantially hampered by the lockdown and its drain on American and Canadian state capacity. 

Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT) are boosting fire management spending by $4 million this season in response to COVID-19. With a smaller number of firefighters available, increased investment in short-term aircraft is now essential for locating and containing bushfires. The supplementary fire crews able to deploy will be housed in ‘bubble camps’, and kept separate from NWT based emergency responders. 

In the American Arctic…

Alaska is in a similarly precarious position. Coronavirus restrictions are projected to reduce available manpower and equipment from the Lower 48 by 30%. As a result, wildfire officials are changing tack and focusing on fire prevention. Since May 1st, large swaths of Alaska have been subject to a burn ban. As nearly 85% of American wildfires are caused by humans, officials hope to reduce fire incidence throughout the summer. 

In Siberia

A Siberian heatwave has ignited several fires across the Russian Arctic. In conjunction with reemerging ‘zombie fires’ in the peatlands, Russia faces an exceptionally dangerous wildfire season. Their emergency response program is likely to encounter the same COVID-19 logistical difficulties as the United States and Canada.

The Arctic is largely dependent on outside support for its survival. Amid a particulate-pandemic, investment in the region’s self-sufficiency is more necessary than ever.

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