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Wildfire smoke from Canada is prompting health warnings in the U.S. again

Click to play video: 'Wildfires prompt new evacuations across Western Canada'
Wildfires prompt new evacuations across Western Canada
WATCH: Wildfires prompt new evacuations across Western Canada

Wildfires raging across Western Canada are sending smoke south of the border and prompting health warnings in several northern U.S. states for a second straight year.

Air quality advisories were issued Sunday for parts of Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin due to haze emitting from fires burning in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, with the smoke lingering into Monday.

Air quality alerts were also issued in parts of those provinces and territories because of the fires.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued its first air quality alert of the season for the entire state on Sunday. The agency said pollution levels will be unhealthy for everyone, and urged people to remain indoors and avoid heavy exertion outdoors until the warning expired at noon on Monday.

The agency later extended the alert for southern Minnesota until 11 p.m. Monday.

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The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued advisories for multiple counties across the state’s northern two-thirds on Sunday warning air quality is unhealthy for sensitive people. The advisories were set to end at noon on Monday as well.

The U.S. Air Quality Index on Monday also reported unhealthy levels of smoke in northern Iowa, and the National Weather Service has issued an advisory for the area as well.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration attributed the spread of the smoke to a low-pressure system across Canada.

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported over 140 wildfires burning across the country as of Sunday.

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A fire raging near Fort Nelson, a community with a population of over 3,000 in B.C.’s northeast, has forced evacuations and fears it could reach the town.

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Canada saw a record number of wildfires in 2023 that forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate and also caused choking smoke in parts of the U.S. Smoke from those fires led to orange and hazy skies and health advisories across multiple U.S. cities, particularly on the East Coast and including New York City.

An analysis by World Weather Attribution, an initiative that aims to quickly evaluate the role of climate change in the aftermath of extreme weather events, found climate change more than doubled the chances of hot, dry weather that helped fuel the fire season.

Canadian officials have warned the country will likely see another intense wildfire season this year amid persistent drought conditions in several provinces and territories.

At the time of the 2023 wildfires, some politicians in the U.S. pointed to the smoke and air quality concerns as a key example of the need to fight climate change. The U.S. Senate debated changes to the country’s wildfire strategy as the smoke clouded the skies over Washington, D.C.

But some Republicans denied climate change’s role and even pointed fingers at the Canadian government for not doing more to prevent the fires. One congressman, Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, even pushed a conspiracy theory that the fires were started by arsonists, not extreme weather.

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Although many wildfires are caused by human activity — that typically means either industrial activity or people dropping cigarettes and letting campfires smoulder — lightning accounted for roughly half of all wildfires started last year. In all those cases, drier conditions raised the likelihood for fires to spread rapidly and grow out of control.

Click to play video: '‘Unsafe to be outdoors’: Wildfire smoke sparks air quality alerts for millions in Canada, U.S.'
‘Unsafe to be outdoors’: Wildfire smoke sparks air quality alerts for millions in Canada, U.S.

This past January, a Quebec man who claimed the 2023 wildfires were a government conspiracy pleaded guilty to starting over a dozen fires himself in the province, including one charge of arson with disregard for human life.

As smoke blanketed the U.S., last year, President Joe Biden authorized hundreds of American firefighting resources to help Canada fight its wildfires, and was in regular contact with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to offer assistance.

Canada has regularly sent its own firefighters to the U.S. to battle wildfires there, including during the historic 2020 fire season in California.

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Asked during a wildfire briefing Thursday if the spreading smoke could turn into a diplomatic issue with the U.S. this year, Canadian officials said it actually presented an opportunity for deeper bonds between the two allies.

“It’s actually a really good example of how the effects of climate change actually force international collaboration,” said Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, pointing to both resource sharing on the ground and the joint development of satellites to detect and map wildfire activity.

“At the end of the day, the impacts don’t know geographic boundaries.”

— with files from the Associated Press

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