Precautionary air quality alert issued for Hay River amidst landfill fire

An underground fire at the Hay River landfill became a surface fire Saturday evening, the town says.

'We've come to a point where the fire has gotten larger and gotten to the point where we need resources.'

A look at the Hay River, N.W.T., landfill fire on Monday morning. The fire flared up on Saturday. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

The Town of Hay River declared a "local state of emergency" Sunday over a fire at the Hay River landfill.

In a press release Sunday, the town said the local fire department has been managing a subsurface fire at the landfill since March 3, but that it flared up Saturday evening.

"Firefighting crews, supported by local heavy equipment and water supply contractors, are now focusing efforts on a surface fire near the south wall of the landfill," the press release states.

N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola issued a health advisory as a precaution because winds are pushing smoke from the landfill into town. Kandola said those most at risk are young children, pregnant women and the elderly.

"Minimize your exposure to as little smoke as possible by staying indoors and [by keeping] the doors and windows closed," Kandola told CBC.

Kandola says the territory's Department of Environment is sending air quality monitors to Hay River Tuesday. 

Deputy mayor of Hay River Ray Bouchard said the town declared a state of emergency so it could get extra resources, mostly from the territorial government.

"We've basically been [fighting the fire] for about a week with our own resources, our own fire department and staff, and now we've come to a point where the fire has gotten larger and gotten to the point where we need resources," said Bouchard. 

He said four firefighters from Fort Smith just arrived in the community to help, and the town is hoping to get a few more firefighters from Yellowknife at a later time. 

"It's mainly to give a break to some of our staff that have been doing this for a week," said Bouchard.

There is no immediate risk to the public, despite winds that were said to be blowing smoke into the community on Sunday. The office of the territory's chief public health officer issued a precautionary public health advisory for Hay River because the landfill fire "could cause poor air quality," according to a press release. 

"The individual level of exposure may change due to wind direction and weather conditions, but it is also influenced by the level of physical activity and age," the release states. 

Those who are most at risk include children, pregnant women, seniors and those with conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and lung or heart conditions. The advisory says that people can reduce risk by avoiding strenuous outdoor activities and by staying indoors. 

People experiencing wheezing, chest discomfort or shortness of breath are advised to seek an assessment from the health centre, states the release. 

The landfill is closed to the public, but garbage pickup continues in Hay River. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

The landfill is closed to the public, but garbage pickup continues in Hay River. Bouchard said residents are asked not to go to the site to see the fire. "We've had some traffic issues," he said. 

"We have equipment that's moving through there regularly.... If you see some of that equipment we'd like you to pull over and allow them to get access to the fire quicker."

Bouchard said it's estimated the fire runs 25 feet (7.62 meters) underground. They are working to contain the fire on the surface by removing brush and other fuels. They are still assessing where the fire is underground.  

The fire has hit some of the metals at the dump, creating dark smoke. Bouchard said they are going to ask anybody with breathing difficulties and seniors to "refrain from going outside too much."

Bouchard said there are four piles of tires at the dump that are a "concern." He said they could spray foam on the tires or move them, but right now the tires seem to be in a contained area. 

He said Hay River and territorial emergency officials will continue meeting throughout the day and updates will be posted to the town's Facebook page.

This is not the first time the town has had to battle fires at the landfill. There have been at least two since 2010.

With files from Kirsten Murphy