160 active wildfires reported in Sask., most of province remains under heat warning, air quality advisory

·4 min read
Wildfires in northern Saskatchewan have been causing significant damage to trees and other wildlife areas. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)
Wildfires in northern Saskatchewan have been causing significant damage to trees and other wildlife areas. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)

There are 160 active wildfires in Saskatchewan as of Sunday afternoon, according to the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency's (SPSA) website, almost all of which are north of Prince Albert, Sask.

SPSA's update said 10 of the fires are contained, 29 are not contained, 25 are active and near property and 96 are being assessed.

Nearly all of the province continues to be under a heat warning or air quality advisory as well — with some places in the southwest under both.

Erin Kuan, president and CEO of the Lung Association of Saskatchewan, said people need to take these warnings seriously for their own well-being.

"There's nothing more important than the ability to breathe," she told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition on Friday.

She said people who are under an air quality advisory should limit the amount of time they spend outdoors, especially children, older adults, pregnant women and people with pre-existing conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — often called COPD.

People should also limit the amount of fast-paced exercise they do outdoors.

"Rigorous exercise can actually increase the amount of oxygen that you need by up to 20 times and, of course, when the air quality is not good we want to limit the amount of pollutants that we're bringing into our lungs," she said.

Exposure to smoky air may lead to symptoms like irritated eyes, runny nose, headaches, scratchy throat or worsening everyday allergies for most people, according to Kuan.

Caution for people with pre-existing conditions

However, those with pre-existing conditions may experience more serious symptoms like swollen airways and increased mucus production.

"You just want to make sure that you have your medications on hand," she said.

"For those folks that do take regular medication to manage chronic illness, increasing their controller or reliever medication during this forest fire season is an excellent idea."

Kuan said it's also important to ensure air conditioners — whether in a home or vehicle — are cycling indoor air instead of bringing outdoor air inside.

She also said masks that many people have grown accustomed to wearing due to COVID-19 — like medical or cloth masks — do not stop smoke from being inhaled because they don't provide a seal around the nose or mouth.

"I think the best advice that we can give folks is to limit [the] amount of time that you are outside, don't go out if you don't have to and, if you do, limit that time, limit the intensity and try to find some good indoor air quality options."

For people who don't have access to air conditioning, Kuan recommended going to places like public libraries, community centres and shopping malls to get a break from the smoky air.

Evacuees from northeast Sask. being housed at U of R

About 300 wildfire evacuees from northeast Saskatchewan will be staying at the University of Regina until it's safe for them to return home, according to an email the university sent to students and staff on Friday.

The first group of evacuees — from the Shoal Lake Cree Nation — arrived on Friday with more likely coming over the next few days.

Shoal Lake Cree Nation Chief Marcel Head said there are three wildfires near the First Nation, which is about 100 kilometres east of Nipawin. About 330 people were evacuated between Friday and Saturday — with help from the Red Cross — due to heavy smoke.

Head said people who are more vulnerable to poor air quality have been prioritized for evacuation — like babies, children, pregnant women, Elders and people with chronic illnesses.

Most of the evacuees went to Regina, but others went to Prince Albert, Melfort, Tisdal or Nipawin, he said.

Support from Red Cross

Canadian Red Cross is offering on-site support for evacuees, according to Head. He said they're providing accommodation assistance, food services and gift cards to people who may need additional food or toiletries.

"Red Cross has done a tremendous job to assist our people with emergency assistance," he said, adding that there haven't been any injuries or property damage that he's aware of.

The U of R email, meanwhile, said many of the evacuees are families with small children and that COVID-19 protocols will be in place.

"In order to protect our guests, who come from a more isolated bubble, and our campus community, the University's COVID-19-related protocols will continue to be in place, including the requirement to wear masks in indoor, public, shared spaces," the email said.

"The number of hand-sanitizing stations will be increased and enhanced cleaning protocols will be in place. Physical distancing will be encouraged to continue for everyone's mutual protection."

The email said some details are still being worked out, but there should be minimal disruption to campus services.

The university said it's also looking into options for organized activities and making some facilities available for evacuees, depending on how long they have to stay.

Saskatchewan's 2021 wildfire count has already exceeded the five-year average by more than 200 fires.

There have been 418 fires to date this year, according to SPA. The five-year average is 212.

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