Staff members at Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital have been seeing twice as many people than normal with respiratory issues, due to forest fire smoke from the worst fire season in decades. 

More than 130 forest fires are burning in the territory.


Dr. Anna Reid, medical director with the Stanton Territorial Health Authority, says people with chronic lung conditions have been having the worst reactions to the smoke.

"We have had some people come in with severe asthma attacks, which if not treated would be life-threatening," said Dr. Anna Reid, medical director with the Stanton Territorial Health Authority.

"Some of them we have needed to hospitalize. These are the people who already have chronic lung disease and it doesn't take much to make them very critically ill."

But not everyone in the emergency room has a medical condition.

"We're also seeing a number of people who never had any trouble with respiratory illness, who do not have asthma, but who are presenting to the emergency department with problems with their breathing that we're having to treat with some of the medications we usually use to treat people with asthma."

Emergency room staff usually see three or four people with respiratory issues on any given day. In the past five weeks, that number has doubled.

Smoke irritates the lining of the lungs, throat, sinus passages and eye membranes. That irritation can cause blocked airways for people with respiratory issues.

Reid says the hospital hasn't yet had to use an air ambulance for anyone due to smoke.

She says people with respiratory issues should stay indoors as much as possible when smoke blows into town.

Fitness buffs move indoors

Dana Britton, a manager at the Racquet Club fitness centre in Yellowknife, says many people are taking that advice, with indoor fitness classes busier than usual.

Holly Hilton

Holly Hilton says the smoke won't stop her from taking her 2-year-old to the beach. (Graham Shishkov/CBC )

"A lot of people ride their bikes all summer, but with the smoke, they've just decided to keep their lungs inside and on the spin bikes, rather than being outside with the smoke."

Britton says they've also kept their children's summer camp indoors on days with heavy smoke.

Andre Corriveau, chief medical officer of health for the N.W.T., says infants, the elderly, and people with asthma and heart problems are at highest risk from wildfire smoke, but everyone should watch for warning signs.

"If you can see the smoke and if you can smell it, and if it stings your eyes and your throat, that's all the information you need to know to know that you have to change some of your habits," he said.

Corriveau said that when the air is smoky, people should cut back on strenuous exercise and spend more time indoors.

For parents, having small kids cooped up in the house is a challenge. 

"There's limited things that you can do in there," says Holly Hilton, mother of a two-year-old. 

Hilton is taking her kids to the playground and the beach, smoke or no smoke.  

"I guess it's just something we have to deal with. We live in the boreal forest and we have to have fires for the health of the forest, so we just have to deal, I guess." 

Smoke reaches Bismarck, N.D.

Northerners aren't the only ones coughing through smoky conditions.

Winds have blown the smoke all the way to south of the Saskatchewan border, to as far as North Dakota.  

Tony Merriman, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Bismarck, N.D., 2,000 kilometres south of Yellowknife, says the smoke prompted a number of phone calls.

“People were just wondering why it was just so hazy and milky outside,” he says “It wasn't a huge impact on the folks down here, but it was very noticeable that it wasn't normal type of conditions for this time in July."

Merriman says the smoke is starting to dissipate because of a storm system in southern Alberta.