Manitoba

'Off the chart': Wildfire smoke chokes sky as air quality alerts blanket Manitoba

The smoke that has blurred the horizon, eclipsed the sun and turned the blue skies of southern Manitoba into a winter-like grey is going to linger for at least another day with levels rarely seen in the region.

Heavy smoke has caused temperatures to drop, Environment Canada meteorologist says

Forest fires in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario have turned the blue summer skies into a grey haze. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The smoke that has blurred the horizon, eclipsed the sun and turned the blue skies of southern Manitoba into a winter-like grey is going to linger for at least another day with levels rarely seen in the region.

The conditions, caused by hundreds of forest fires in northwestern Ontario and east-central Manitoba, have prompted air quality advisories for parts of Manitoba and even forced the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League to cancel their Tuesday practice.

The measure of particulate matter in the air "is pretty much off the chart right now," said Justin Shaer, a meteorologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada.

"It's well over 100 micrograms per cubic metre." he said. "Once you get to 100 it's poor air quality, so we're seeing in excess of that."

East-northeast winds are sending the smoke across southern Manitoba for a second consecutive day. The Red River Valley is in a thick haze, which can also be seen well into the western part of the province and even parts of southeast Saskatchewan, Shaer says.

"There's not going to be much reprieve from this until tomorrow when we do get a nice southerly flow [of wind] that should push it back out of the valley."

But that will just push it farther north to communities that are already shrouded by smoke from numerous fires scattered throughout that part of the province as well.

The smoke was thick enough in southern Manitoba Tuesday that it caused temperatures to decline, Shaer said.

The forecast had called for temperatures in Winnipeg to be close to 30 C on Monday and Tuesday. Instead, highs were in the low 20s.

As of Tuesday evening, a special air quality statement remained in effect for most of the province, save for some northern regions. The conditions can cause sore eyes, tears, coughing and a runny nose, even in otherwise healthy individuals, Environment Canada says.

Health issues: Lung Association

The exposure to smoke can cause health issues, says the Manitoba Lung Association. 

"The small particles get deep into the lungs, get absorbed into the body. It can cause inflammation as they circulate around.… The heart and circulatory system are of particular concern," said Neil Johnston, a registered respiratory therapist and the association's president.

"Prolonged exposure can lead to serious disease, and if continued at this level over the years, we'll definitely see changes to people's health."

Johnston says people should stay indoors as much as possible or head to a well-ventilated area, such as a shopping mall, community centre or library.

Shaer also suggests if possible, people should keep windows closed and air conditioning units turned off, because they will draw in the smoke.

For those who work outdoors, the smoke is not a pleasant experience. 

"It puts you in an 'under the weather' feeling," said Jeff Mederski, a maintenance manager for Lawn Dudes in Winnipeg.

"We're in and out of the truck quite a bit, that's our break. Nonetheless, breathing it, working in that smoke, it's not the best."

In over 20 years working in the landscaping industry, Mederski says he has not experienced smoke of this magnitude.

"Yesterday afternoon, my eyes were itchy and watery. This morning I found it really bad,  just how thick it was. It seemed like fog."

The Manitoba Lung Association says those working outdoors should plan to take breaks in a ventilated indoor space. Johnston notes using air filters will remove some of the damaging particles and says anyone with a chronic condition should plan ahead to bring rescue inhalers and masks.

"Set up a clean-air zone in your workplace if you're an employer. There are ways of preparing — it just takes forethought."

Fires force evacuations

There are more than 130 fires burning in Manitoba right now, including several just east of Berens River near Atikaki Provincial Park, a wilderness park east of Lake Winnipeg along the Ontario boundary.

About 600 people have already been taken out of fly-in communities in that area — Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nation — and over the next few days another 500 to 700 are expected to join them. 

Two other communities located along the shores of Lake Winnipeg — Bloodvein and Berens River First Nations — have also begun evacuations. Five hundred people with high health priority have begun leaving, according to a spokesperson with the Canadian Red Cross.

The province has issued a travel ban for all areas east of the lake and north of Nopiming Provincial Park. The ban began Tuesday at 8 a.m. 

Everyone except permanent residents, including cottage owners, is prohibited from entering the region. Permanent residents must also be ready to leave with an hour's notice. 

A map of all areas affected can be found on the province's website

A series of thunderstorms swept through southern Manitoba early Tuesday morning but the rain didn't have a significant impact on the smoke, Shaer said.

"It's just not heavy enough. It's really the wind that [is needed to] blow it out."

Although that wind is expected to arrive on Wednesday, the smoke could easily return if the wind changes direction again in the next little while, Shaer says.

"It doesn't look like there's an end to these fires any time soon," he said. "So when we get a wind shift back to the north-northeast, we'll probably start seeing smoke again in the air."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

With files from Ian Froese and Jill Coubrough

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