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Wildfire Smoke in Manitoba

Smoky Skies in a Record-Setting Year 

If there has been one shared experience for all Canadians in 2023 from coast to coast, it has been dealing with wildfire smoke. Like never before, the weather forecast shows nearly as many smoky days as sunny days. 

As of August, over 13 million hectares of land have been lost to wildfires across the country in what has been a historic year for wildfires. The previous record for acreage lost in Canada from wildfires was 7.6 million hectares burned in 1989. According to data released at the briefing, there have been over 5,500 wildfires across Canada so far in 2023. The fires have forced the evacuation of 167,589 people across the country and have taken the lives of four firefighters. The seemingly endless fires have resulted in air quality concerns across the country. 

According to the Manitoba Government, the major factors influencing the degree to which wildfire smoke will affect your health are the “length of time you are exposed, how much air you breathe in, your health status and the concentration of smoke in the air.” The most harmful material in smoke from a wildfire is the small particles. These particulates can make it harder to breathe and may cause worsening of preexisting heart and lung conditions. Those most at risk of smoke-related injuries are children and the elderly, as well as anyone with preexisting respiratory conditions. The province advises that such individuals are vulnerable to smoke inhalation and should take precautions even on mildly smoky days. 

Smoke levels have been difficult to predict as they vary greatly depending on fire conditions and the direction and speed of wind. Sporting events across the country have been postponed or cancelled throughout the summer on particularly smoky days as competing in an intensely smoky atmosphere is unsafe for athletes as they’ll be breathing more heavily and rapidly. But you don’t have to be running around to be at risk of the damaged heavy smoke. A heavy smoke day is when visibility is less than four kilometres. 

The Impact Across the Country 

Not only has this summer been record-setting, but this pace is expected to continue through August and into the fall. According to Michael Norton, director general of the northern forestry centre at the Canadian Forest Centre, there is an “extreme risk” for more fires in B.C., the Prairies, the Northwest Territories and Ontario as a result of ongoing droughts.  

“In September, we anticipate that the potential area at extreme risk will become a bit smaller,” Norton said at a national wildlife briefing on August 11th. Norton referred to this summer as having turned into “a challenging marathon.” 

According to Norton, the fires have released one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. 

“This kind of simultaneous fire activity in all regions of the country is virtually unheard of; it’s usually more regional,” Norton said. 

While 13 million hectares of burned land is a large number to consider, Norton gave some perspective on the scale of the damage. 

“As a bit of comparison, the total perimeter length of this year’s fires so far would stretch more than 90 percent of the way around the equator,”  

This historic year of fires has put thousands of firefighting personnel to work across the country. Thus far, 5,821 Canadian firefighters have fought these fires across the country. Four thousand nine hundred ninety firefighters have come from countries across the world to help us as well.

Firefighters from Australia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, France, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, and the United States have come and gone throughout the year to fight the year’s fires. Many have since returned home, but Canadian officials have no doubt we have enough domestic firefighters to fight the remaining blazes. 

According to Norton, Canada will be able to round out the remainder of this fire season on its own thanks to wildfire initiatives accounted for in the 2022 federal budget. Among these investments are $256 million over five years for equipment as well as $28 million for the Fighting and Managing Wildfires in a Changing Climate Program. 

Announced the same day as the briefing with Norton, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced a newly formulated plan which will see Ottawa sending money to the International Association of Fire Fighters to support a pilot project aimed at training firefighters to properly take on wildfires nearby populated areas, also known as the “wildland-urban interface.” 

The province with the most area lost to fires this year has been Quebec by a “wide margin,” Brian Simpson, head of wildfire intelligence at Natural Resources Canada, told reporters on August 11th.  

Quebec saw dozens of fires in June, which caused historic air pollution in New York City. The air pollution in New York was so bad from Canadian wildfire smoke that it was rated number one for the worst air pollution in the world in early June. According to the BBC, wildfire smoke has reached as far as Europe. The smoke was brought across the Atlantic in the jet stream, high above the ground. Because of this, the air quality for European citizens was not as dramatically affected as it was in New York or the rest of Canada. 

Across the country, many fires are still burning, and air quality continues to be a serious concern. While there are hotspots across the country, most are in the Northwest Territories and southern parts of British Columbia. Fires remain burning across the south of Alberta and Saskatchewan as well. Smoke intensity is at its worst in northern parts of Canada but continues to come south through Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, causing harmful breathing conditions and hazy skylines throughout.  

How to Safely Manage Smoky Days

The Manitoba government has posted recommendations for individuals concerned about smoke inhalation or smoky days. 

“Limit outdoor activities, especially if it makes you tired or short of breath; stay inside and keep windows and doors closed. If you have an air conditioner, set it to “re-circulate” and keep it running to help filter the air and keep you cool (the same is said of vehicle air conditioners); if you live in the Brandon or Winnipeg area, check the local Air Quality Health Index, for updates on air quality conditions.” 

The province suggests a person should seek medical care if they experience a persistent or worsening cough, unusual shortness of breath, tightness or pain in the chest or significant fatigue. Any feeling of dizziness should also be an indication that a person should head indoors and avoid time outside for a few hours. 

The Canadian government also suggests people wear respirators or other protective breathing equipment on days with heavy smoke to reduce the intake of smoke particles to the lungs. On days with heavy smoke, the government recommends individuals avoid exerting themselves outdoors by avoiding biking, swimming, or jogging when conditions are smoky. When smoke is heavy for several days, individuals are advised to limit their outdoor time in general. 

Individuals working outdoors are advised to check with provincial occupational health and safety for guidance on how to safely work through hazy conditions.  

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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