Air quality warnings continue as wildfires continue in Western Canada

Click to play video: 'Forecast calls for worsening air quality'
Forecast calls for worsening air quality
A shift in wind today helped fire crews battle the wildfire burning in Northern BC, but their are warnings of smoky conditions and poor air quality approaching the Lower mainland soon. Aaron McArthur reports – May 17, 2023

The mayor of a west-central Alberta town said it was emotional to return home nearly two weeks after an out-of-control wildfire forced residents to flee, but thousands elsewhere remain on edge as scores of fires continue to rage across much of the Prairie provinces and British Columbia.

“Just happy to be home and happy to be supporting one another and just pulling together like we always do,” Drayton Valley Mayor Nancy Dodds said at a news conference Wednesday.

Fire officials pointed to areas around the community, 145 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, showing how close the flames crept.

“It’s a huge relief, and we’re just so thankful that our home is still standing and that everyone is OK,” said Jade Verheul, who had to quickly leave with her children on May 4.

Verheul said she was lucky to have a place to go because her parents have an RV lot in Seba Beach, west of Edmonton.

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She knows, however, that not all her neighbours have a home to go back to.

Officials said five homes were destroyed by the blaze. A firefighter was also injured by a falling tree.

Fire Chief Tom Thomson said the fire is still burning, but the risk has significantly lessened. He said people should still take precautions.

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“There are still extremely hazardous areas out in the county area, we call it the burn area or the black area, there are concerns about falling trees, there are concerns about ash pits,” he said.

More than 19,500 people in Alberta had been forced from their homes as of Tuesday evening. Ninety-one active wildfires were burning in the province, with 28 listed as out of control as of Wednesday afternoon.

There are about 2,500 people battling wildfires in Alberta, including hundreds of soldiers.

Reservists trudged through smouldering trees near Drayton Valley on Tuesday before officials partially lifted an evacuation order. Dressed in yellow jumpsuits with bright blue safety helmets, they walked through trees, some of which were reduced to matchsticks.

It’s “still a very significant and dangerous situation” in Alberta, Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said in Ottawa Wednesday.

Blair said the federal government is working with its provincial counterparts and the Canadian Armed Forces to make sure resources are available, but the growing number of fires is a challenge.

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There were also 27 active wildfires in Saskatchewan as of late Tuesday.

Buckley Belanger, a former long-serving legislature member in northern Saskatchewan, left Ile-a-la-Crosse after a mandatory evacuation was ordered for the village Tuesday. Ile-a-la-Crosse is on a peninsula and a single road connects it to the main highway.

Belanger said the wildfire travelled within 12 kilometres of the community and crossed the highway. He said the blaze is moving through the tops of trees and shooting pine cones like “vessels of fire.”

“The wind is helping push it in the direction of Ile-a-la-Crosse and we are hoping either rain comes or the wind shifts,” he said. “But we are clearly in its path. That’s why it’s better to get people out of harm’s way.”

People were also forced to flee nearby Buffalo Narrows this week. Belanger said more than 30 cabins were likely destroyed. The loss is devastating, he said, as the buildings hold a rich family and trapline history.

“We see all that burned to the ground, nothing left but ashes,” Belanger said. “That’s real, real heartbreaking.”

Meanwhile, the City of Fort St. John in northeastern British Columbia has rescinded its evacuation alert, as a change in wind direction aided firefighters in preventing two out-of-control wildfires from advancing closer.

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An update on the city’s website says the alert has been lifted for all properties and its roughly 21,000 residents “can safely resume everyday activities.”

Air quality warnings, however, remain for the area due to smoke.

In the Northwest Territories, the K’atl’odeeche First Nation and town of Hay River, about 120 kilometres from the Alberta boundary, remain evacuated.

Mike Westwick, a wildfire information officer with the government, said a small amount of scattered showers provided a crucial opening for firefighting teams to tackle the blaze.

“This relief will not last as hot dry conditions continue today,” Westwick said in a news release Wednesday.

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