Fire situation eases slightly, but risks remain as more than 400 wildfires still burn
The Canadian PressNews wildfire
By Mia Rabson in Ottawa
Canadians should be on alert for more bad air quality days ahead this summer as wildfires continue to burn out of control in most provinces, national public health officials warned Monday.
They say Canada needs to revisit the data it collects on health risks from wildfires.
They also say Ottawa should review the contents of its emergency stockpile to make sure it is prepared for the risks not only of future pandemics but of other health risks, including from a growing risk of climate change-related disasters.
This spring’s unprecedented wildfire season has led to multiple air quality warnings in many of Canada’s most populated areas.
The smoky haze that stings the eyes and makes it hard to take a deep breath can have serious health implications both immediately and through prolonged or repeated exposures, said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam.
She said smoke contains microscopic particles not visible to the human eye, and those particles pose the greatest risk to human and animal health.
They can cause asthma attacks, compounding breathing problems for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and potentially leading to bronchitis and pneumonia.
Some studies have also linked exposure to wildfire smoke to an increase in heart attacks and stroke.
But unlike during COVID-19, when positive tests were to be reported publicly and data was relatively easy to gather from every province, wildfire-smoke related respiratory admissions to emergency rooms and other hospital wards are not considered a reportable disease, said Tam.
“I think in preparation for what might be coming in the future, looking at systems and their ability to report trends, whether it’s emergency rooms or others, could indeed be quite helpful,” she said.
“But that’s not the reality right now.”
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Health Canada believes about 2,500 people died in Canada due to exposure to wildfire smoke between 2013 and 2018.
He said knowing that climate change is driving up the risk of wildfires in the future, those numbers aren’t going to get better.
“We expect, unfortunately, both the short-term and the longer-term consequences of bad air quality due to wildfires to be even larger than the numbers I just gave you,” he said.
So far this year, 2,700 fires have burned more than 58,000 square kilometres, or equivalent to an area about three times the size of Lake Ontario.
That is more than 15 times the amount of land normally burned by this point in the year.
Canada is on track to pass the most area ever burned before the end of June.
While the number of fires burning now has diminished slightly since last week and rain brought some much needed relief in parts of Alberta and Quebec over the weekend, there were still 424 fires burning across Canada as of Monday afternoon.
Almost half of them were burning out of control and some have remained out of control for weeks.
That included the Donnie Creek fire in northeast British Columbia, which on the weekend became the most damaging fire the province had ever seen, burning more than 5,300 square kilometres of land since it was triggered by lightning on May 12.
A fire burning out of control just south of Edson, Alta., started on May 4 and has burned more than 2,000 square kilometres to date.
Duclos said the situation is not likely to get much better as the hottest months of the year are still ahead, and the fires that have not yet been wrestled under control pose more and more risks as the weather gets hotter and drier in July and August.
“Most concerning is that the peak of the wildfire season will probably not be reached for several weeks,” he said in French.
Tam said people can take steps to protect themselves, including staying indoors in air-conditioned spaces with the windows closed when the air quality is bad.
But she warned that heat can be a bigger risk than smoke, people who don’t have air conditioning and can’t close their windows should seek out shelter or cooling centres that do.
“No matter where you live in Canada, you can be affected by a wildfire smoke,” said Tam.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2023.
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