Hazardously poor air quality from excessive wildfire smoke besieged much of Western Canada over the May long weekend as another fire sparked more evacuations, adding to the thousands of people who have already been displaced.
Despite cooler temperatures arriving for much of the region because of the thick haze, air-pollution levels have remained dangerously high. A new out-of-control wildfire in the British Columbia Interior also triggered an evacuation order on Sunday for the Cariboo Regional District, roughly 600 kilometres north of Vancouver.
As of Monday, there were 16 evacuation orders in Alberta forcing 10,872 people from their homes, according to Alberta Wildfire. Some 2,709 personnel are fighting the fires, including 400 members of the Canadian military, the agency said. As well, there are 24 firefighters from the U.S. helping out.
“They’re digging through hot spots and extinguishing them, which is the work that we need to do,” said Christie Tucker, an information manager with Alberta Wildfire, at a Monday afternoon briefing.
Ms. Tucker said forecasted rain “could be a turning point” for firefighters.
“Most of the majority of the large-scale fires that have been burning in Alberta have received some rain since yesterday, which is very good news. … We are hoping for continuation of that rain for certainly a few more days.”
But the smoke is expected to continue. Data from FireSmoke.ca, a tracking website for smoke maintained by the Weather Forecast Research Team at the University of British Columbia, shows a plume of smoke stretching from the B.C. coast to Ontario and drifting as far south as Texas. While the heaviest of the smoke is expected to dissipate over Calgary and Edmonton by Tuesday, northern parts of the province, especially around High Prairie, Alta., will remain choked.
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“It has been difficult just to even go outside,” said Lisa Stewart, a widowed mother of twin four-year-old girls who lives in Calgary’s Beltline Neighbourhood. “The girls and I, we mask up to go outside and it works a bit, but then your eyes still get sore.”
Even keeping the smoke out of her home has proven to be a major challenge. In addition to closing all the windows, she had to turn off the air conditioner because the unit was pulling in smoky air from outside.
“I woke up this morning and it was smoky in our house because we had the the AC on last night,” Ms. Stewart said. “Days like today, we are staying inside, but then what do you do with two four-year-olds all day? We have done a lot of bath times, just trying to keep us cool because we can’t have any windows open.”
Daorcey Le Bray, who also lives in the Beltline neighbourhood with his wife and their eight-year-old daughter, ended up cancelling a day of outdoor activities because of the smoke.
“We had plans to go for brunch this morning with our kiddo and we would have tacked on a bike ride and a playground visit to that,” he said, “but at a 10 air-quality rating, we’re happy to stay inside and play [The Legend of Zelda] Tears of the Kingdom all day.”
“We have filters running in our apartment to manage the smoke – it’s like our own little space capsule – but we’re hoping things improve for school tomorrow,” Mr. Le Bray said.
In Edmonton, the air quality was a little better on Monday, allowing resident Trent Hamans to play a quick round of golf in the morning.
“But Saturday was really bad, I stepped outside and I am an asthmatic and not only could I smell the smoke, I could actually taste it,” Mr. Hamans said. “It was pretty thick and it was pretty gross.”
Even his golf game failed to provide a complete distraction from the wildfires as once he was finished, he entered the parking lot to find all the cars coated in a layer of ash.
“The whole city is sort of stuck in this malaise,” Mr. Hamans said. “There is no place to really hide.”
Panic is still in the air in northeastern B.C., according to Krysta LaFountain. She is among more than 20,000 people in the area who have been prepared to leave at a moment’s notice since last week.
Ms. LaFountain, who lives in the small municipality of Taylor just outside Fort St. John, B.C., said the fear that took over after an evacuation alert was first sent out on May 15 has lingered throughout the long weekend.
“We are still on edge,” Ms. LaFountain said. “I think a lot of people have realized how woefully inadequate our preparation is.”
Ms. LaFountain said she saw cars lined up at gas stations that ran out of fuel one after the other as people rushed to leave town.
“The whole thing was surreal,” she said. “There were a lot of people who were kind of banding together with their neighbours and making sure that their family had a place to go or that they had supplies. Not everybody can just go and fill up their car, many of us live payday to payday, so people were also helping pay for each other and their gas.”
Near Fort St. John, Blueberry River First Nations and Doig River First Nation have also been placed on evacuation order, affecting more than 600 people.
Ms. LaFountain said she has kept her belongings packed in her trailer along with enough food to last her family for a few days, since the alert was issued, which has now been rescinded. On Monday, she said the town started to see some rain.
“I’m just happy our rain dances are working now because this really is a blessing for all of us,” Ms. LaFountain said.