Loss of Health

Choked out: the wildfire smoke threat to tree planters

As the job hazard grows across Canada, protections fail to keep up. A Tyee and Climate Disaster Project special report.

Illustration of a treeplanting planting in a cutblock with a red sun and smoky sky.
Aldyn Chwelos, Kristen de Jager and Paul Voll
With files from Nicholas Naylor. Edited by Sean Holman and David Beers

A thick grey haze brewed above Alberta’s Slave Lake region in the summer of 2021. Seth Forward thrust his shovel into the earth to carve a home for green-needled seedlings. The heat and swarms of horseflies plagued him. But as Forward planted tree after tree, he was more concerned with the dark sky and acrid smell in the air.

“It was pretty much a summer of drowning smoke,” says Forward in an interview with the Climate Disaster Project’s Nicholas Naylor.

Still, his crew maintained their daily routine of rising from their tents at 5:30 a.m. under a haunting red sun. Forward pulled thousands of seedlings from his bags, mindful that nearby trees were blackened in fires, and worried by the smoke he and other planters were forced to breathe.

This summer’s worst recorded fire season in Alberta, British Columbia and across Canada means many more tree planters have been exposed to harmful pollutants contained within smoke.

But an investigation by the Climate Disaster Project and The Tyee reveals regulations in place for outdoor workers during Canada’s wildfire seasons haven’t done enough to protect those like Forward.

Read more about the Climate Disaster Project and The Tyee’s findings.

This story was originally published in The Tyee, on Sep. 18, 2023.

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