Air quality off the charts in Calgary; smoky haze expected to last into weekend – Calgary Herald

Air quality off the charts in Calgary; smoky haze expected to last into weekend - Calgary Herald
Across Alberta, B.C. and northern Ontario, thousands displaced as wildfires rage
A man wears a bandana over his face as he walks along Centre Street in Calgary on Friday, May 31, 2019. Downtown is barely visible behind him, obscured by smoke from northern Alberta wildfires. Al Charest/Postmedia

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.

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.

An average of about 2.5 million hectares of land is charred every year during Canada's annual wildfire season, he said. "That's half the size of Nova Scotia, and it's doubled since the early '70s due to our changing climate," said Flannigan.

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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.

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

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.

The wildfire threatening Manning is called the Battle Complex Fire. As of Friday, it was about 52,000 hectares and still several kilometres to the northwest of Manning. Shifting winds and thick smoke remain big challenges for firefighers, who have come from as far away as Kenora and Timmins to help.

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.

However, Alberta Wildfire said heavy smoke Thursday over the wildfires in the Slave Lake forest area reduced the “fire behaviour intensity.” As of 1 p.m. Friday, “overall fire behaviour of these wildfires was low to moderate, and they were not spreading significantly.”

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.

About 5,000 people have been out of their homes in and around High Level in northwestern Alberta for more than a week. This week even more people from that region, as well as from near a separate wildfire by Manning about 250 kilometres to the south, were told they had to leave.

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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.

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.

“Keep in mind it is at a much higher elevation. It’s got no impact on our Lower Mainland air quality which remains good,” Lacate says. “It’s really the combination of the marine air in the lower 500 meters or so of the atmosphere and it’s being overrun by this dissipating distant wildfire smoke, which is 5,000 to 10,000 meters above sea level.”

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.

For those wondering if the 'colourful' sunrise/sunsets of late are a precursor to deteriorating #AirQuality: You can breathe easy around Metro #Vancouver for now, as dense/hazardous #wildfire smoke remains confined to the northeast corner of BC and all across Alberta. pic.twitter.com/JB3XFFWwGP

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.

METRO VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – You may have noticed the sky has looked a little hazy at times this week, but NEWS 1130 Meteorologist Russ Lacate says there’s no need to be concerned about what you’re breathing in.

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.

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson. Contact him in confidence at [email protected]

Smoke from the Alberta wildfires is obscuring the sun in several U.S. cities

But other events taking place across the city this weekend were still scheduled to go ahead, despite the hazy conditions.

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

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.

Kenney made the comments Friday, one day after his government axed the tax brought in by the previous NDP government and the same day Saskatchewan said it's appealing to the Supreme Court to declare the federal levy unconstitutional. 

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Calgary will also host Western Canada’s largest motorcycle street festival on Sunday. The event is scheduled to proceed despite the smoke.

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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

The status of the Calgary Humane Society’s “Dog Jog” on Saturday remains up in the air.

Dr. Lacy says wildfire season is a public health issue and would like to see the province come up with a plan to more aggressively stamp out fires, before they grow too large.I really believe they need to be much more proactive about clamping down on forest fires as soon as they come out. She also says that any responders expected to spend time in smoky conditions should be provided with a properly fitted respirator to protect their lungs.

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.

Dr. Lacy is working on a study of about 200 RCMP officers who worked around Fort McMurray during the 2017 wildfire. Virtually none of them had access to properly fitted respirators.She says the results were striking. Because of that one transient exposure lasting anywhere between one to 28 days, they ended up with a kind of persistent elevated asthma diagnosis, said Lacy.

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“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.”

Dr. Lyle Melenka,  medical director and respirologist with Synergy Respiratory Care, evaluated all of the RCMP officers in the study. He did not find any Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), abnormal x-ray results or other lung problems.

“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.”

But we definitely saw a major increase in the amount of asthma the officers had,said Dr. Lacy. The study focused on officers who were non-smokers and Dr. Lacy says 98 per cent of the officers did not have access to properly fitted respirators.

The Calgary Zoo said it was taking “extra precautions” to ensure the health and safety of its animals, with some animals kept inside Friday.

Basically when you breath that wood smoke it is exactly the same as if you are smoking cigarettes continuously. It is no different, said Dr. Paige Lacy, Alberta Respiratory Centre research director.

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.

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.

The images captured by satellite and shown on Nasa's worldview website, show how the smoke has worked its way west on the jet stream.   Alberta is beset by early season wildfires which began on March 1. The images show how the entire province looks to be completely engulfed in smoke. There are five large areas of satellite “hot spots” that are visible in this natural-colour satellite image collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra satellite on May 29.

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.

Kovrig, a former diplomat and Asia expert at the International Crisis Group, and Spavor, a businessman, have been accused of colluding to steal state secrets. Canada has repeatedly urged their immediate release, calling their detention "arbitrary." Neither has been permitted access to lawyers or family members.

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.

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

“Smoke from wildfires in northern Alberta is causing poor air quality and reducing visibility in some areas,” reads the air quality statement.

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.

In central and southern parts of the province smoke is expected to move back north by Friday morning as the flow shifts to southeasterly.

“This is due to human-caused climate change; in particular, warming. The warmer we get, the more fire we see.”

Residents in parts of Alberta are experiencing the same eerie, apocalyptic skies that British Columbia faced last summer.

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.

“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.

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“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.”