Fire situation eases slightly but risks remain as more than 400 wildfires are still burning

Canadians should be on the alert for more days of poor air quality this summer as wildfires continue unchecked in most provinces, national public health officials warned Monday.

They say Canada needs to review the data it collects on the health risks of wildfires.

They also say that Ottawa should review the contents of its emergency reserve to ensure it is prepared for the risks not only of future pandemics but also of other health risks, including an increased risk of climate change-related disasters.

This spring’s unprecedented wildfire season has generated multiple air quality advisories in many of Canada’s most populated areas.

The smoky mist that stings the eyes and makes deep breathing difficult can have serious health implications both immediately and through prolonged or repeated exposures, said Dr. Theresa Tam, director of public health.

She said the smoke contains microscopic particles that are not visible to the human eye, and those particles pose the greatest risk to human and animal health.

They can cause asthma attacks, aggravating breathing problems for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and can lead to bronchitis and pneumonia.

Some studies have also linked exposure to wildfire smoke with an increase in heart attacks and strokes.

But unlike COVID-19, when positive tests had to be publicly reported and data was relatively easy to collect across provinces, wildfire smoke-related respiratory admissions to emergency rooms and other hospital wards they are not considered a notifiable disease, Tam said.

“I think, in preparation for what might come in the future, looking at systems and their ability to report trends, whether it’s in ERs or otherwise, could be very helpful,” he said.

“But that’s not the reality right now.”

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Health Canada believes around 2,500 people died in Canada due to exposure to smoke from wildfires between 2013 and 2018.

He said that knowing that climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires in the future, those numbers are not going to improve.

“Unfortunately, we expect the short- and long-term consequences of poor air quality due to the wildfires to be even greater than the numbers I just gave you,” he said.

So far this year, 2,700 fires have burned more than 23,000 square miles, or the equivalent of an area about three times the size of Lake Ontario.

That’s more than 15 times the amount of land that typically burns at this time of year.

Canada is on track to surpass the largest area ever burned before the end of June.

While the number of fires burning now has dropped slightly from last week and the rain brought much-needed relief to parts of Alberta and Quebec over the weekend, there were still 424 fires across Canada as of Monday afternoon.

Nearly 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 over the weekend became the most damaging fire the province has ever seen, burning more than 5,300 square kilometers of land since it was sparked by lightning on 12 of May.

A wildfire south of Edson, Alta., started May 4 and has burned more than 8,000 square miles to date.

Duclos said the situation is likely not to improve much as the hottest months of the year are yet to come, and fires that have not yet been controlled pose increasing risks as the weather turns hotter and drier in July and August.

“The most worrying thing 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 with air conditioning and windows closed when the air quality is poor.

But he cautioned that heat can be a bigger risk than smoke, so people who don’t have air conditioning and can’t close windows should seek shelter or cooling centers that do.

“No matter where you live in Canada, you can be affected by smoke from a wildfire,” Tam said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 19, 2023.

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