The air quality in Sudbury and surrounding districts is expected to fluctuate over the next few days due to active forest fires in northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba.
Environment Canada issued a special air quality statement on Sunday for Greater Sudbury and vicinity, including Manitoulin Island, West Nipissing, French River, Espanola and Killarney.
The health risk in Sudbury was low on Monday afternoon, and it is projected to be moderate through to Tuesday.
Public health officials recommend that residents continue to monitor the situation and take precautions if they are at-risk.
“Wildfire smoke itself is a constantly changing mixture of particles and gases. This includes many chemicals that can be harmful to your health,” said Jane Mantyla, a health promoter at Public Health Sudbury and Districts.
“Exposure to wildfire smoke can cause breathing difficulties and headaches. Some people might experience irritation to the eyes, nose and throat.”
Most healthy adults will recover quickly from smoke exposures, but there are some people who are more susceptible to symptoms, she added.
These include the elderly, children, people who smoke, and people with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions like asthma.
Residents are encouraged to assess their risk level and take precautions if they can see or smell smoke outside.
“What you can do is avoid physical exertion outdoors and stay inside with the windows shut. If you’re using an air conditioner, be sure to change it to recirculate or recycle mode so that you’re not pulling that contaminated air into your home,” said Mantyla.
“People who are more vulnerable should consult their healthcare provider for advice if they have symptoms that are causing them concern.”
Because it’s difficult to predict where and when air quality conditions will deteriorate, people are advised to consult Ontario’s Air Quality Index online.
The index provides information on current and forecasted air quality in Sudbury.
For areas outside of Sudbury in the north, people should consult the special air quality statements that can be found by searching for public weather alerts on the Environment Canada webpage.
“As long as the fires are burning, and the wind is blowing in our direction and some other weather conditions are favourable, we might continue to experience wildfire smoke impacts locally,” said Mantyla.
To view special weather alerts, visit Environment Canada’s website.
On Monday, the province said the number and size of wildfires in Northern Ontario this year are substantially higher than average, and have forced thousands of people to flee First Nations communities.
This year, there have been 902 wildfires so far, nearly double the 10-year average of 520. There are currently 151 active wildfires, mostly in the northwest, officials said.
More than 520,000 hectares have been burned by those fires, which is more than three times the average of about 153,000.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario, as well as the NDP, have called on the province to declare a state of emergency over the wildfires.
But the province says the situation doesn’t meet the legal conditions to declare the state of emergency. In addition to there being a danger of major proportions, there must be a lack of available resources to support the emergency. Sufficient resources are currently being deployed, the government said.
Premier Doug Ford said he would be going to visit the Thunder Bay command centre on Wednesday.
“We’re throwing every single resource we have up there,” he said, speaking Monday in Ottawa.
“Anything they need they’re going to get. I will spare no expense.”
Several First Nation communities and municipalities have declared their own states of emergency.
One fire that is 17,598 hectares in size is a little over six kilometres away from Poplar Hill First Nation and is not under control. Another fire not under control is eight kilometres away from Cat Lake First Nation.
More than 3,000 people have been moved from affected First Nation communities for their safety, but based on the weather outlook the government said 5,000 more may need to leave their homes.
There is some rain in the forecast, officials said, but “significantly more precipitation” would be needed to moderate the fire hazard.
The higher number of fires and larger size this year are the result of extreme drought conditions across most of Northern Ontario, where wildfires are sparking easily after lightning strikes, officials said.
Speaking in a background briefing Monday, government officials said it’s difficult to attribute any specific fire season to climate change since each year varies widely depending on weather, but that climate change is expected to increase the number and risks of the fires.
Evacuees have been moved to communities across the north, including Sudbury, but some are being hosted as far away as the Greater Toronto Area.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones and Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry Minister Greg Rickford said the government has committed significant resources to fighting the fires and helping those affected.
“All requests for evacuations have been facilitated by the province, and over 600 wildland firefighters continue their efforts to contain and suppress the fires in the northwest, utilizing all available land and aerial equipment to protect people and property.”
All residents of Poplar Hill First Nation and Deer Lake First Nation have been evacuated, as well as vulnerable residents of Pikangikum First Nation, North Spirit Lake First Nation, and Cat Lake First Nation, the government said.
Wildfire smoke is affecting air quality and visibility all the way south to the Toronto area and to the Kingston area. Environment Canada issued an advisory, saying smoke is currently “expected or occurring,” and high levels of air pollution are possible as a result.
- with files from Canadian Press
Colleen Romaniuk is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at The Sudbury Star. The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.