Calgarians woke up with dry throats and watery eyes on Friday morning as heavy smoke blanketed the city.
Calgary registered a 10+ on the Air Quality Health Index, considered a very high risk, to start the day.
"Noting the seriousness of the situation, we have those assets participating so that if we do need to move a large number of people, they can help move a significant portion of them out of harm's way," said David Lavallee, a spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
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A special air quality statement from Environment Canada, Alberta Environment and Parks, Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services warned of symptoms such as increased coughing, throat irritation, headaches and shortness of breath due to the drifting wildfire smoke which originated in the province’s north.
Children, seniors, and those with cardiovascular or lung disease such as asthma are especially at risk and should avoid strenuous activities outdoors, according to the statement.
Crews are fighting the fire as members of the Canadian Rangers and the Canadian Armed Forces help co-ordinate evacuations from the community of 3,800. Evacuees are slated to be taken to Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout and potentially other communities in northern Ontario.
It warned that people with lung diseases can be particularly sensitive to air pollution, which can aggravate their conditions and lead to increased medication use, doctor and emergency room visits and hospital visits. Those with breathing difficulties were advised to stay inside, and if possible, to find an indoor place that’s cool and ventilated.
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Those with homes that aren’t air-conditioned should consider going to a public place such as a library, shopping mall or recreation centre, it stated.
By Friday evening, the Air Quality Health Index had dropped to 4, but conditions were expected to remain hazy into the weekend. A meteorologist said Thursday that smoke was expected to linger for at least another four to five days.
A masked Bill Todd gets a smooch from Dexter during a walk on Crescent Road N.W. in Calgary on Friday, May 31, 2019. Todd says its the first time hes had to wear a mask outside. Jim Wells/Postmedia
“I don’t see a big push in clearing this stuff out until probably early next week,” said Dan Kulak of Environment Canada, noting a change in wind flow is expected early next week for the southern part of the province.
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The air quality rating in Calgary was expected to fall to 5, a moderate risk, by Friday night and to 4 by Saturday.
“We began the day [Wednesday] with approximately 5,500 evacuees and we currently have over 10,000,” Dreeshen said in an update Thursday afternoon, after a day of hot temperatures and gusty winds led to the explosive growth of several blazes burning out-of-control.
Calgary’s air quality was so poor on Friday that it was worse than some of the most polluted cities in the world, with a separately calculated Air Quality Index rating of 306 as of 8 a.m. Mountain time.
Considered “hazardous,” that rating was worse than both Delhi and Beijing, which each ranked in the top-10 most polluted capital cities across the globe in the 2018 World Air Quality Report.
Due to the special air quality statement in effect, the City of Calgary cancelled all scheduled outdoor activities and events taking place Friday if they cannot be moved indoors. City athletic parks remained open, but individual sport leagues would determine if their activities will continue as planned.
“Breathe easy, air quality has remained good all week long and it looks like that’s going to be the case on Thursday and into the weekend as well,” he adds. Meantime, all air quality advisories in the interior — related to the wildfire smoke in Alberta — have now been dropped.
Calgary Minor Soccer Association (CMSA) cancelled all of its Friday night games, and called on coaches to reschedule those games as they would for any inclement weather situation. The association promised to update parents by 11 pm on both Friday and Saturday on games happening the following day.
CMSA also chose to cancel its Minifest soccer festival on Saturday because of the uncertainty of the air quality. The group is hoping to reschedule the event, and will provide more details when they become available.
The Calgary Stampeders said they would make a call at 5:45 p.m. on whether or not to go ahead with a preseason game scheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday.
But other events taking place across the city this weekend were still scheduled to go ahead, despite the hazy conditions.
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The annual 4th Street Lilac Festival on Sunday will also run “rain, shine, or now smoky,” organizers say, adding there would be a high level presence of Calgary police and Alberta Health Services officials in case of emergency.
Calgary will also host Western Canada’s largest motorcycle street festival on Sunday. The event is scheduled to proceed despite the smoke.
Animation on FireSmoke.ca shows the anticipated spread of smoke from wildfires in northern Alberta from Friday to Sunday. By Sunday, the heaviest concentration of smoke is forecast to move out of the Calgary region. Courtesy FireSmoke.ca
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The status of the Calgary Humane Society’s “Dog Jog” on Saturday remains up in the air.
Phil Fulton, manager of community outreach, said the Calgary Humane Society would play it by ear and decide the morning of the event whether or not to proceed.
“Safety of participants and the animals is our main priority,” he said. “This kind of smoke can exasperate dogs that are already at risk of heat stroke.”
“This would more severely affect dogs like . . . pugs, bulldogs, dogs with shorter snouts,” Fulton said. “If they’re overweight, that kind of thing, already have cardiovascular or airway abnormalities, just making sure that people are educated.”
The Calgary Zoo said it was taking “extra precautions” to ensure the health and safety of its animals, with some animals kept inside Friday.
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On smoky days like today, we take extra precautions to ensure the health & safety of all our animals. The animals most sensitive to air quality will be kept inside. Other animals may be encouraged to come in if they show signs respiratory irritation. Stay safe, everyone! pic.twitter.com/TSs73FSpaP
She also noted that this wildfire season has been far more devastating than the five-year average, as the same time period (March 1 to May 31) generally sees an average of 131,712 hectares burned as a result of 548 wildfires, while 2019 has seen nearly 375,000 hectares burned as a result of 502 fires.
Last summer, Calgary broke a record for the number of smoky hours within the city as wildfire smoke from B.C. blew east throughout much of August.
“Every year’s got its own personality,” said Kulak, commenting on how common it is for smoke to fill the skies this early in the year. “It just depends on how many fires go.”
Local school principals were asked by the Calgary Board of Education to avoid strenuous activities for students and to consider indoor lunch and recess on Friday.
The impacts of the fire have been felt all around the province, with the City of Calgary registering as very high risk on Environment Canadas air quality health index and the skies in Edmonton turning orange as a result of the smoke that has blown in.
For schools within the Calgary Catholic School District, all outdoor activities were cancelled and students were kept inside. Students would also be monitored for symptoms of poor air quality such as irritated eyes, increased mucus production in the nose or throat, coughing or difficulty breathing, the school district stated.
Karla Gustafson, medical officer of health with Alberta Health Services Calgary Zone, said the most common symptoms some might experience during the smoke include irritation to the eyes or throat. Additionally, those with pre-existing health conditions might notice that their symptoms are aggravated or amplified.
However, Gustafson said it’s difficult to measure the long-term effects of consistent exposure over time.
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“It’s hard to gauge these acute wildfire smoke effects, the impacts of those, and correlating that with other exposure to air pollution that happens in an ongoing way,” she explained.
While people might struggle with the impact of wildfire smoke, horticulturalist Kath Smyth said plants are resilient and will adapt as needed.
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However, if the smoke cover in Calgary mirrors last year’s lengthy haze then she said it might affect plant growth. Smyth recommends people loosen their soil and avoid overwatering to protect their gardens.
“If it continues, we could have some issues but I really, truly don’t think there will be a large scale affect,” she said.
Environment Canada says that this afternoon the area of smoke will extend from northwestern Alberta through Whitecourt then towards Hanna and is slumping southwards.
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Jessica Derry takes a selfie on Crescent Road N.W. on Friday. The skyline is normally a postcard shot, but the buildings cant be seen. Jim Wells/Postmedia
According to experts, Prairie provinces will see a longer fire season, in addition more frequent wildfires, heat and drought in the coming years, as a direct result of climate change.
“On average, we’re going to see a lot more fire and a lot more smoke, but not necessarily every year,” said Mike Flannigan, professor with the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta.
“This is due to human-caused climate change; in particular, warming. The warmer we get, the more fire we see.”
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Projected warmer and drier conditions across the country mean an extended fire season, and more lightning, which also equals more fire, said Flannigan.
Calling it the “new reality,” he said fire is unavoidably part of the province’s future. Since the early 1970s, Canada’s area burned has doubled.
While it’s already been a more active year than usual for wildfire activity in Alberta, Flannigan said it’s not uncommon for fire season to start this early, as May is typically the busiest month for burns within the province.
Longer lasting periods of weather stagnations — those without rain — have already had an effect on neighbouring regions in recent years.
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“Catastrophic fires in California, record-breaking seasons in 2017 and 2018 in B.C., were largely due to this stagnate pattern with the high pressure over the west coast,” Flannigan said.
He said the rest of the fire season in the province, which could be “historic,” will depend on weather patterns and the amount of rain that falls in Alberta.
“It’s going to take a lot of rain to put these suckers out,” he said. “These fires will probably burn for weeks to months unless we get significant rain.”