Smoke from wildfires raging across northern Alberta blanketed Calgary and surrounding areas after strong winds pushed the acrid air south, prompting air-quality warnings from Environment Canada deeming it “very high risk” to residents.
Nearly 90 wildfires were active on Tuesday afternoon in northern and central parts of the province, with 24 considered to be out of control. The smoke that accumulated in Calgary skies covered the city in a distinct orange haze, described by residents as eerie and apocalyptic.
Alberta’s health authority and Environment Canada warned residents that smoke inhalation, even at low concentrations, can be harmful. Alberta Health Services said the biggest health risk comes from small particles in the smoke, which can get in people’s eyes, respiratory system and bloodstream and cause difficulty in breathing.
Air-quality statements were issued for numerous parts of Alberta on Tuesday varying in risk levels. Airdrie, Calgary and Grande Prairie were listed as the highest-risk areas, followed by Drayton Valley and Lethbridge. Improvements to air quality are expected on Wednesday.
While the smoke is a constant reminder of the intensity of this wildfire season, it has also helped to create cooler conditions in some areas, said Christie Tucker, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire.
“So far today, our wildfires have been slightly less active than anticipated,” she said during a news conference. However, Ms. Tucker said gusty northwest winds will continue to affect smoke movement in the province and did contribute to some growth on a number of wildfires on Monday in areas north and west of Edmonton.
“The wildfire landscape is still changing as we see some wildfires contained and others starting up. With no significant rain expected in the coming days, we ask all Albertans to respect the fire bans and restrictions in place across the province,” she said.
Smoke from wildfires in Alberta descended on Calgary Tuesday, giving the sky a deep orange colour. As of May 16, about 90 fires were burning in the province, with 24 considered out of control.
Ms. Tucker added that lighter wind activity is expected in the coming days but that the situation can change drastically should the wind blow in new directions.
About 2,500 firefighters and other responders are in Alberta attacking the blazes and she said more support has been requested from outside the province. The province remains under a state of emergency with nearly 20,000 people unable to return home and 21 evacuation orders in place.
Meanwhile, residents of the K’atl’odeeche First Nation and the nearby town of Hay River in the southern Northwest Territories, just hours from the Alberta border, have also been displaced from their homes after an out-of-control wildfire sparked in the area.
Alberta officials were unable to provide details on the extent of damage, but said no injuries have been reported to the emergency co-ordination centre.
“That doesn’t mean that local authorities aren’t having injuries on-site and tracking them,” said Colin Blair, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
“I guess the good thing is that we haven’t had a fatality to this point in time and let’s hope we can do the rest of this response in that manner.”
Also on Tuesday, an e-mail from Alberta Public Service Commissioner Tim Grant was sent to provincial employees asking those with firefighting experience to join the effort to stifle the wildfires. “Thank you to all who step forward as we all work together to take care of our communities,” Mr. Grant wrote.
A spokesperson for the Public Service Commission clarified later in the day that employees who volunteer will not see any change in their compensation or benefits should they take on the outside role.
Ms. Tucker said the province has been focused on bringing in support “where we can find it” and that the call-out supports an earlier request to Albertans broadly to volunteer if they have firefighting experience. She said any volunteers will have their skills evaluated.
She said it’s important that firefighters are refreshed and that they are able to leave duty for brief breaks, which is why there are calls out for significantly more resources “to keep up the pace because we have to plan for not only the situation that’s in front of us today but the situation weeks from now.”