HEAT, drought and now, smoke.
Manitoba’s season of extremes forced Environment Canada to issue an air-quality advisory for much of the southern part of the province Tuesday as dozens of forest fires produced choking smoke delivered by unhelpful wind conditions.
"It’s very, very unhealthy," said David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Historic heat and continued drought here and elsewhere have set the stage for dangerous fire conditions across the country that leave Manitobans at the mercy of wind, he said.
"(Smoke) could come from Alberta, Saskatchewan, or even your own province of Manitoba," he said, noting smoke from California last year made it as far as western Europe. However, the nearer a fire is, the more likely it is to get trapped in local air streams that circulate lower to the ground.
Phillips said Manitoba broke 55 daytime heat records over the span of the recent heat wave. Temperatures soared, hitting 38 C in Lynn Lake, he said. Previously, he said, Winnipeg has averaged 13 days above 30 C; there have been 14 already.
Records were smashed not only in Manitoba, but across the country. Phillips counted a total of 670, each one part of the same "heat dome" system that at one point reached from the West Coast to northwestern Ontario and into the Territories.
Thirty-two wildfires are currently burning in Manitoba. There have been 140 already this year, only nine shy of last year’s total.
Wildfires east of Berens River and west of Red Lake, Ont., have been billowing smoke into airstreams moving into south-central and southeastern Manitoba.
On Monday, Ontario reported 14 new fires in its northwestern region, mostly around Red Lake. That number, combined with 19 burning in this province northeast of Winnipeg, led to Environment Canada’s air-quality advisory.
Rainfall has been nearly non-existent in southern Manitoba, said Phillips.
"In the past six weeks, you’ve had a grand total of maybe a millimetre or 1.5 millimetres of rain," he said.
Phillips expects the air quality advisory to be short-lived, as winds are expected to shift to the south today. But he said he expects hot, dry weather will continue throughout the summer.
The heavy smoke brings health risks, particularly for certain groups, said Dr. Peter Benoit, a public-health physician.
Small children are susceptible to smoke inhalation "because they take more breaths per minute than adults, so they potentially breathe more smoke," he said.
Pregnant women, elderly people, anyone doing strenuous activity outdoors and those with underlying heart and lung conditions are also at risk, he said.
"Common things people might experience would be sore throat, watery eyes, runny nose, potentially headaches," he said.
Smoke contains particles that act as irritants, causing inflammation, he said, noting masks worn for protection against COVID-19 — especially the non-medical variety — are likely ineffective at blocking the particulates.
Benoit said people should err on the side of caution when dealing with smoke. At the first sign of respiratory trouble, he advised people to consider reducing their activity and keeping a close eye on their conditions. People with chronic conditions, such as severe asthma, should consider waiting out an air-quality advisory altogether, he said.
The air-quality health index listed Winnipeg at "moderate risk" until Tuesday night. Environment Canada said the general population doesn’t need to modify their outdoor activities unless experiencing symptoms such as coughing and sore throat. At-risk populations should consider reducing or rescheduling outdoor plans.
Cody Sellar is the reporter/photographer for The Times. He is a lifelong Winnipegger. He is a journalist, writer, sleuth, sloth, reader of books and lover of terse biographies.
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