Large areas of Southern British Columbia and Alberta are under air quality advisories, as smoke from several growing forest fires blots out the sun and rains ash particles on the region.
Environment Canada issued one such advisory to residents of Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley on Saturday. The department’s air quality health index listed Cranbrook, Squamish and Whistler as “high risk” as of late Monday morning, while the Eastern Fraser Valley region was considered “very high risk.” The risk level had lowered somewhat by Monday evening, but was forecast to be high again in Eastern Fraser Valley on Tuesday.
More than 1,000 people are under evacuation orders in the province, many of them forced out by a fire bearing down on Hudson’s Hope.
With smoke from B.C. drifting eastward, cities in neighbouring Alberta, including Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, are also under Environment Canada advisories for high air-quality risk.
Colette Fisher, who lives near the Old Hope-Princeton Highway in the Fraser Valley, said she is five months pregnant and asthmatic, and has been using her inhaler much more frequently than usual because of constant wheezing caused by the smoke.
The poor air quality has also triggered coughing fits, causing her to gag and vomit. “It is at times uncontrollable,” she said.
She added that she has been trying to stay indoors as much as possible. When outdoors, she has been wearing an N95 mask that she received from Hope Community Services, a local non-profit.
Jamie Clark, a resident of Chilliwack, B.C., said the glass patio table and hot tub in his backyard were covered with ash on Sunday, and that he and his wife have both developed hacking coughs.
“You could actually see the ash coming down,” he said.
Tara McGee, a professor at the University of Alberta’s department of earth and atmospheric sciences, said wildfire smoke can cause significant respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses, and also poses a threat to pregnant people, who can suffer prenatal and birth-related issues as a result of inhalation.
The advisory for Metro Vancouver suggests residents postpone or reduce outdoor physical activity, and says indoor spaces with HEPA air filtration and air conditioning can offer relief from both air pollution and heat.
There are currently about 190 active wildfires burning across B.C., only five of which the BC Wildfire Service considers notable, meaning they are large enough to be highly visible or pose a threat to public safety. Out-of-control fires in B.C.’s Peace region and outside of Hope have prompted evacuation orders in those areas.
About 500 people in B.C. are registered with Emergency Support Services (ESS) in Fort St. John, as they seek relief from the Battleship Mountain wildfire, according to Emergency Management BC. And 18 people are registered with the District of Mission ESS as a result of the Flood Falls Trail wildfire.
About a quarter as many wildfires are active in Alberta. Last week, the Chetamon Mountain wildfire damaged power lines near Jasper and caused widespread outages.
Jasper Mayor Richard Ireland said on Monday afternoon that some power has been restored, but that many businesses and some residents are using their own generators.
He added that it is hard to say when the town and surrounding area will return to normal, but that crews are working around the clock to fix power lines. An update from the municipality on Monday said the wildfire is about 5,800 hectares in size and is being tamed by more than 125 firefighting personnel with aerial support. There is no immediate risk to surrounding communities.
B.C.’s Fraser Health Authority said in a statement that hospitals in the region have not seen an increase in respiratory-related emergency department visits. Alberta Health Services said it also has not seen a spike.
Smoke from the Chetamon fire is drifting into B.C. and the United States. There are also active fires in California, Washington and Oregon that are impacting the Western provinces, according to wildfire expert Michael Flannigan, a research chair at Thompson Rivers University.
“Smoke knows no boundaries, and it can go wherever the wind blows and stay around for a long time,” he said. Canada’s wildfire season typically winds down by September, he added, but this season has been “a bit weird,” with a later start in B.C. and Alberta. Lightning has caused more wildfires than usual in B.C., and there have been fewer human-caused blazes, he said.
“Fall will come. The rains will come. The snow will come, and fire season will be over,” Mr. Flannigan said. “I expect by the end of September things will be fairly quiet.”
Environment Canada meteorologist Danielle Desjardins said it’s hard to know when the smoke will clear, because that depends on how long the wildfires last, as well as ever-changing weather patterns.
“We are expecting the worst to be today and tonight,” Ms. Desjardins said on Monday of the situation in Alberta.
Lori Daniels, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of forest and conservation sciences, said the fire season continuing well into September is “a little bit unusual.”
She said it’s part of a trend that experts have observed in recent years.
“In the last decade, we’ve seen more of these substantive fires igniting and burning, or spreading rapidly during very hot, dry and windy conditions, which are the conditions that are very conducive to fire,” she said.
“But to have that kind of extreme fire weather track into September is really a signature of climate change.”