Thick, acrid smoke from blazes raging in Quebec is choking the entire region from the nation’s capital to Southern Ontario and into the heavily populated northeastern United States, as Canada deals with one of its worst wildfire seasons on record.
Special air quality advisories warning about the dangers of smoke inhalation were in effect on Tuesday in large parts of Quebec, including Montreal and Quebec City, and into Ontario, stretching from Ottawa to London and further south. New York is also facing code red “unhealthy” air quality, as smoke drifts as far south as Tennessee. Numerous sports and other outdoor events have been cancelled in areas blanketed by the greyish orange haze.
And the situation is only expected to worsen, according to Natural Resources Canada: The agency’s fire map is bright red, indicating “well above average” activity is predicted in all but a handful of regions this month. A total of 2,214 blazes raging across Canada have already burned more than 3.3 million hectares of land – surpassing the 10-year average over the same time frame of 1,624 fires and 254,429 hectares torched.
The department said it is unusual for fires to cover this much of the country so early in the season. Warm and dry conditions are expected to increase the wildfire risk this month, with blazes expanding into Yukon and receding from Western Quebec into Central Ontario.
Victoria Nurse, a meteorologist from the Ontario Storm Prediction Centre, said wildfires every year drive smoke into various parts of the country, but that it is rare to see it spread to this extent, particularly to the U.S. She said the unpleasant haze will continue to linger in Southern Ontario until at least the end of the week.
“We’re not expecting any big rain soaking systems to come through unfortunately, so, looking at the forecast, fires could continue to grow,” Ms. Nurse said. “Depending on the wind direction changing, if we get that flow from the east that will take some of the smoke out of Southern Ontario and push it into Northern and Western Ontario.”
More than 150 wildfires were burning in Quebec on Tuesday, with a significant number of them deemed “out of control,” according to the province’s forest fire prevention agency. A number of blazes are also burning in Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Thousands of people, from coast to coast, have been displaced from their homes this spring. Some have been given the green-light to return, as some fires are extinguished or brought under control, but others are living in hotels, evacuation centres or finding shelter with loved ones.
Carolyn Binder of Upper Tantallon, N.S., was more than 40 weeks pregnant when she and her husband, Markus, saw flames in the trees and smoke billowing into their yard last Sunday. They grabbed clothes, laptops and a portable safe as their panicked seven-year-old daughter, Lorelei, and five-year-old son, Felix, scrambled into the car.
The Binders are among 4,100 people still evacuated from their homes because of the wildfires that tore through wooded suburbs northwest of Halifax last weekend. Now contained, the blaze is one of five still burning in the province. In Southwestern Nova Scotia, the largest fire in the province’s history was still out of control but no longer growing after rainfall.
The couple remembers telling the kids to close their eyes as they drove through a thick wall of black smoke out of their subdivision. Ms. Binder, three days overdue, had been walking and bouncing on an exercise ball the day before, willing the baby to come. Now, she hoped the baby would stay inside for just a little bit longer.
They arrived at a friend’s place in Dartmouth, and three days later, Ms. Binder felt the familiar tightening waves of pain. Leo Arthur Binder, with plump cheeks and brown hair, was born at suppertime last Wednesday.
“He held on just long enough,” said Ms. Binder, holding Leo as he dozed in a donated striped navy sleeper in the downtown Halifax hotel suite where they are all living for now.
The Binders’ home, which the couple said the city has informed them is intact, is located in one of the neighbourhoods where wildfires gutted more than 150 residences. It could be another two weeks before they will be allowed back home to assess the smoke damage.
Meanwhile, feeding, clothing and entertaining two young kids in a hotel suite with a newborn has been, at times, overwhelming. But Leo, who spends his days stretching, grunting, nursing and sleeping, has been a welcome distraction – somebody to gaze at and snuggle when it all seems like too much. After the family returns home, Ms. Binder said she will record Leo’s unique birth story in his baby book, a gift from her sister.
“I was initially upset that you were past due, but I am super thankful that you were,” she plans to write. “Thank you for coming at just the right time. And for being such a bright spot. It’s been a dark few days.”
The wildfires have strained firefighting resources across the country, and provinces such as Alberta have leaned on other provinces and countries to secure additional help.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked those fighting the blazes for “working incredibly hard in difficult situations” and noted that some have been at it for weeks: “They have our full support,” he told media on Tuesday. Mr. Trudeau urged residents to listen to local authorities to stay safe from the wildfires and smoke, while encouraging people to donate to the wildfire appeals. Ottawa is matching donations in Alberta, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories.
Opposition leaders continue to be briefed on the evolving wildfire situation, Mr. Trudeau added: “Everyone is completely aligned and working together and trying to keep Canadians safe across the country.”
With files from The Canadian Press