Alberta wildfires: Smoke triggers special air quality statement for much of province

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfires: Valleyview evacuated as flames creep closer'
Alberta wildfires: Valleyview evacuated as flames creep closer
WATCH: With dozens of wildfires burning across Alberta, a shift in the wind has pushed forest fire smoke throughout the province. Heather Yourex-West reports on the worsening air quality, how long the smoke could stick around, and the message to Albertans – May 16, 2023

With dozens of wildfires burning across Alberta, Environment Canada issued a special air quality statement for much of the province Tuesday morning as more smoke began to drift into communities, even some far away from the blazes.

“Smoke is causing or expected to cause poor air quality and reduced visibility,” the weather agency said in the alert issued shortly after 7:30 a.m. “Air quality conditions are expected to improve on Wednesday.

“Wildfire smoke can be harmful to everyone’s health even at low concentrations.”

Wildfire smoke drifts through Edmonton’s river valley on May 16, 2023. Global 1 News Helicopter

Edmonton and Calgary were included in the air quality statement, which mostly affects people in central and northern Alberta.

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Environment Canada warned that people with lung or heart diseases, pregnant women, older adults, children and people who work outdoors were at “higher risk of experiencing health effects caused by wildfire smoke.”

“Mild irritation and discomfort are common, and usually disappear when the smoke clears,” the weather agency said. “Drinking lots of water can help your body cope with the smoke.

“If you have an HVAC system in your home, use the highest rated MERV filter for your system — ideally rated 13 or higher — and set the fan to recirculate air constantly. You can also use a portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) air cleaner. Keep your doors and windows closed if the temperature in your home is comfortable.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfires: Timelapse shows air quality deterioration in Calgary'
Alberta wildfires: Timelapse shows air quality deterioration in Calgary

Dr. Anne Hicks, a pediatric respirologist and assistant professor at the University of Alberta, said infants and young children are among those most at risk.

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“And pregnant people because poor air quality can lead to pre-term birth and other adverse pregnancy outcomes.

“Infants and young children are much more likely to end up in the emergency room or even hospitalized with any respiratory problem,” she said.

“And then people with any underlying lung conditions: people with asthma, people with COPD.

“And interestingly, wildfire smoke can also trigger heart problems. So someone with a high risk of heart attack or strokes and other neurological problems can be pushed over the edge.”

Hicks said she checks the Air Quality Health Index before she goes outside. If it’s high, those with air quality sensitivity should limit the amount of time they’re outside and the intensity of what they’re doing outside.

“If it gets hotter today, people are going to want to open their windows to cool their house off and I would say: ‘That might not be a great idea.’ So, unfortunately it’s about finding that balance.”

There are things people can use to reduce the smoke’s effect, Hicks said.

“We’re a bit fortunate. Because of the pandemic, a lot of people have added HEPA filtration or MERV filtration to their businesses, which means we have more safe places to be indoors.

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“An N95 or similar quality mask will filter out a lot of the larger air particles.”

Alissa Knight decided to keep her 11-year-old daughter Payton home from school Tuesday.

“This morning, it was really, really smoky and really orange, yellowy. It just wasn’t good and the air quality wasn’t good.

“Because her asthma is super bad, even though it’s super well controlled, we just figured it’s better to be at home where she doesn’t have to go outside, where we can keep the doors and windows closed, it’s going to be better for her in the long run.”

After lots of hospital visits as a toddler, Payton now has a better handle on her asthma.

“It’s been good as long as we stay with our precautions and when it’s like this, she stays home and she doesn’t go out,” Knight said.

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“It’s really sad to watch. Thank god she’s a little bit older and she can understand.”

The smoke prompted another Edmontonian to change her plans Tuesday.

“It’s not great,” said Cathy Flood. “I was supposed to do an activity outside this morning — rowing — and it seemed a bit too smoky so I decided to swim instead, indoors.

“It is concerning. I may reconsider cycling to work the next few days until it clears up,” she added.

“I’m worried that it’s going to get a lot worse. We were in Canmore last summer for a couple of days and we couldn’t even go outside it was so bad.

“I’m thinking about a friend who has asthma and I’m wondering how she’s doing,” Flood added.

The smoke is also concerning for new dad Abdullah Shams.

“Air quality is very terrible,” he said Tuesday. “I have a newborn at home. He’s only a month old.

“I was choking when I woke up from sleep. I couldn’t even breathe. So I shifted everybody from upstairs to downstairs in the basement because I had my window open upstairs, just so we can breathe a little better.”

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A spokesperson for the City of Edmonton said it monitors air quality hourly.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were no facility closures due to the air quality concerns.

However, “if conditions require service alterations, notifications will be shared via the city’s media channels.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfires: Special air quality statement issued as smoke covers Calgary'
Alberta wildfires: Special air quality statement issued as smoke covers Calgary

In Calgary, city officials said anyone whose health is at risk or who is sensitive to air quality should try to go somewhere inside with filtered air, like malls, libraries and recreation centres.

City of Calgary spokesperson Kaila Lagran said emergency shelters also have capacity for those experiencing houselessness.

“If you see someone who doesn’t look like they have somewhere to go and may need assistance, please call the DOAP team at (403) 998-7388.

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“Our DOAP team, bylaw officers and community partners are out working together to be extra vigilant for any people experiencing homelessness who might need extra assistance in these smoky conditions,” Lagran said.

The Calgary Stampeders moved their practice indoors on Tuesday.

“We’re lucky to have access to this facility today,” said GM and head coach Dave Dickenson. “We’ll see how it plays out.

“Mother Nature’s going to win in most things so we have to understand. We’ll do our best to get better. We want to practice. We want to work, but we’ll be smart.”

The Calgary Catholic School District postponed all outdoor junior and senior high athletic events due to poor air quality.

Visit Wildfire Smoke and Your Health ( for more ideas on how to stay safe in smokey conditions.

For more information, click here.

For a complete list of areas in Alberta under a weather alert, click here.

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