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Wildfire smoke hangs over Toronto, poor air quality prompts cancellations, warnings

A man swims in the frigid waters of Lake Ontario overlooking The City of Toronto’s skyline in Mississauga, Ont., on Sunday, April 2, 2023. Canada's most populous city continues to endure hazy skies and poor air quality as smoke from wildfires throughout Ontario and Quebec blanket the city. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — Canada's most populous city experienced hazy skies and poor air quality Thursday as smoke from wildfires in Ontario and Quebec hung over Toronto.

Environment and Climate Change Canada issued a special air quality statement for the city, warning of high levels of pollution and deteriorated air quality throughout the day as a result of smoke from the fires.

The Toronto District School Board moved recess and other outdoor events indoors, and city-run daycares suspended outdoor activities. 

The City of Toronto adjusted programming to move outdoor recreation programs indoors – or cancelled them altogether – and outreach teams were checking on people experiencing homelessness. Additional temporary spaces were also being opened at some homeless shelters.

In downtown Toronto, Navtesh Thakur said he had planned to spend the evening outdoors with a friend after work but they altered their plans to meet briefly instead before heading home. 

"I feel like there is some smoke in the air. It's not that much, but it's still there," Thakur said. 

"I will probably stay home for the rest of this week."

Thakur added that the air pollution was having an "emotional impact" on him more broadly because it had him worrying for residents beyond Toronto, referencing New York City, where smoke from wildfires was creating a bright orange haze. 

"I hope things improve because it's impacting a lot of people," he said. 

Meer Nagda, who was outside in Toronto's financial district during his lunch break, said he felt his seasonal allergies had worsened but he didn't feel a significant deterioration in air quality. 

"It was worse yesterday in the morning when I was around here," he said. "I could actually smell the smoke in the air, compared to today."

Toronto Public Health encouraged residents to be aware of their sensitivity to pollution and to protect their health, including avoiding strenuous outdoor activity, limiting time outside, closing windows and using air filters if possible.

The city warned that poor air quality may persist into the weekend.

"Exposure to air pollutants, like smoke, can cause a range of symptoms including irritated eyes, increased mucus production, coughing and difficulty breathing," the city wrote in a statement. 

Environment and Climate Change Canada warned that people with lung or heart diseases, older adults, children, pregnant people and those who work outdoors were at a higher risk of experiencing health effects from the smoke.

However, the agency noted that wildfire smoke can be harmful to everyone's health "even at low concentrations."

The air quality was also affecting the Toronto Zoo – the attraction said it was reducing its hours to close at 3 p.m. on Thursday in response to the environmental conditions. 

Toronto Pearson International Airport said its operations were not affected by the air quality but noted that some flights from the U.S. eastern seaboard may be affected.

West of the city, Niagara Falls Tourism announced its popular fireworks program was on pause for the second night in a row due to wildfire smoke over the region.

There were 56 active forest fires in Ontario on Thursday, with 27 listed out of control, the province said. 

Fire adviser Shayne McCool with Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said active fires to date this year stood at 180, a significant jump from the 10-year-average of 157 by this time of year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press

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