Wildfire smoke blankets Calgary to Red Deer, bringing very high-risk air quality

People in southern Alberta are being urged to stay indoors with windows closed Friday, as wildfire smoke blankets much of the region.

Albertans are urged to postpone outdoor activities, seek medical attention if necessary

A Calgary Eyeopener listener sent this photo in, taken from her office window. (Dawn37_yyc/Twitter)

People in southern Alberta are being urged to stay indoors with windows closed Friday, as wildfire smoke blankets much of the region.

For Calgary, Airdrie and Red Deer, Environment Canada has issued an air quality health index of 10+, the highest on the scale, signifying very high risk.

Most of the province is under a special air quality alert, as well. People throughout the south report thick smoke that smells like a campfire.

"It means that there's a heavy load of pollution in the air — and we know that right now, there's forest fires burning in northern Alberta, and that forest fire air pollution has been transported on the wind," said Dr. Kathryn Koliaska with Alberta Health Services.

"Those little particles can be breathed deep into the lungs and so we want to limit the amount those are really being drawn into the lungs."

Calgarian Leslie Kramer took this photo Friday of downtown with Prince's Island in the foreground. Environment Canada issued a special air quality statement saying conditions were expected to improve in southern Alberta by Saturday. (Leslie Kramer)

In northern Alberta, fires have forced more than 10,000 people from their homes — more than twice the number from the day before. Another community, Trout Lake, was put under evacuation order early Friday as the fire moved "rapidly north."

Smoke from the fires is causing poor air quality and reduced visibility throughout Alberta, British Columbia and in the United States.

Environment Canada issued an updated special air quality statement for Calgary and the rest of southern Alberta just before noon Friday. It said the foothills would see an improvement later in the day with the rest of the south improving Saturday. Conditions were expected to remain hazy into the weekend.

Edmonton and northern Alberta have struggled with air quality in recent days. The sky lit up orange in the province's capital on Thursday.

Lethbridge and Medicine Hat were rated at four, or moderate risk, Friday morning, with an expectation of a rating of seven, or high risk, in the smoke.

The sun rose behind a cloud of smoke Friday morning in Calgary. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Calgary physician Dr. Raj Bhardwaj says the particulate in the air has the same health effects as smoking 10-15 cigarettes a day.

"That's obviously not great for anybody," he told the Calgary Eyeopener.

In Calgary, some people were still running and biking, normally healthy modes of getting around. Alberta Health Services recommends people try to limit heavy exertion done outside, and reschedule outdoor events.

Pollution can aggravate breathing

The pollution can severely aggravate people's breathing and health, in particular that of children, seniors and those with cardiovascular or respiratory illnesses, such as asthma and COPD.

Bhardwaj warned that hospital masks do little to protect against smoke particles, and can, in fact, make it more difficult to breathe. A properly fitted PM2.5 mask, or something better, would make a difference, he said.

Alberta physicians say if people want to wear a mask, wear a properly fitted PM2.5 or something better. Otherwise, the mask will simply make it more difficult to breathe. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The Calgary Catholic School Board has cancelled all outdoor activities, and the Calgary Board of Education is recommending principals keep students inside for recess and lunch. Other boards have similar policies when the air quality index is so high.

Prolonged exposure to smoke can take its toll on everyone, respiratory specialist Dr. Ron Damant said.

"Be aware that air quality is important and to plan around it," he said. "And as much as possible, we can't live in a bubble, I guess, but when the air quality is getting bad, try to avoid exposure to it."

Those without health concerns can also find they're struggling to breathe.

If you are, the federal environment authority recommends staying indoors, keeping windows closed and seeking ventilated air in public places, such as libraries, malls and recreation centres. Seek medical attention if necessary.

Even if you aren't struggling, everyone is encouraged to reduce or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities.

Symptoms may include coughing and irritated throat.

Calgarian Kulwinder Singh said he and his wife were struggling to breathe, comparing it to smog in India.

"This is just crazy. I'm feeling pretty bad right now, a lot of respiratory problems," he said.

Alberta Health is urging people to postpone outdoor activities due to the high level of pollution. (Leslie Kramer)

Singh and other pedestrians interviewed by CBC brought up global warming, and some called for government action on it. Sharon Thompson, who was visiting her son in the city, said she missed the usual spring colours and sunshine.

"Today it's all shrouded. It's quite sad and disappointing," she said, adding she felt the cause was "environmental changes."

"I think Mother Nature's trying to speak very clearly and loudly," Thompson said.

A recent report, commissioned by Environment Canada, warned Canada is projected to warm at double the global rate, leading to increased "extreme fire weather." The scientific report stressed "the human factor is dominant" in the cause of climate change.

Foothills Medical Centre was surrounded by smoke and barely visible Friday morning. (Rachel Ward/CBC)

Air pollution over the next few days will depend on the fires to the north and wind patterns.

Firefighters continue to battle the northern Alberta fire, despite difficult conditions and continuing evacuation orders. The fire danger rating is extreme or very high for the top half of the province.

Environment and Climate Change Canada has issued a special air quality statement for much of Alberta. (Environment and Climate Change Canada)

Environment Canada says the thickest smoke may dissipate in central and south Alberta later Friday, with projections of the risk level dropping to five or moderate by night.

The air may remain hazy into the weekend. The risk level is predicted to remain around four, or moderate, on Saturday for Calgary, Red Deer, Airdrie and Medicine Hat.

If you have an outdoor weekend event planned, check with the organizers ahead of time.

Some sports fields and associations have either cancelled or are encouraging the cancellations of games and practices for Friday.

The productions of Heartland and Tribal have stopped filming until next week.

With files from Mike Symington, Diane Yanko