Air quality improves but fires at Base Gagetown continue to burn

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Air quality improves but fires at Base Gagetown continue to burn

The smoky haze is lifting over Fredericton and other communities and the air quality health index has been reduced to low risk as three forest fires continue to burn at Base Gagetown south of the city,

The fires were not a threat to any residences but the smoke was affecting people's breathing and outdoor activities on Monday.

Environment Canada issued an special air quality alert for Fredericton and southern York county earlier in the day. 

Children, seniors and people with allergies or lung conditions were told to stay inside.

The New Brunswick's Department of Public Health also sent an air quality advisory for the Fredericton area.

In recent weeks, training exercises have ignited fires at the base that were still active Monday morning, sending smoke over surrounding communities and creating a haze over the capital.

Two of the fires have burned a combined total of 1,000 hectares, while a third fire has burned 26 hectares.

East of the city, a fourth wildfire was burning out of control in the Portobellow Creek Nationial Wildlife Area near Lakeville Corner.

As smoke continued to cloud the capital region Monday, officials warned people to stay inside, keep windows and doors closed and turn off air exchangers, which can bring bad air in from outside.

Air quality samples taken in Fredericton showed the particulate count rising Monday from 38 at 7 a.m. to 80 at 11 a.m., more than 16 times higher than usual.

By evening, the count had fallen to 6, which is considered low risk. 

Environment Canada weather forecast calls for showers early Tuesday morning and throughout the day as well as rain on Wednesday.

Who's at risk?

At the worst of the smoke Monday, New Brunswick's Department of Public Health asked residents to take precautions.

"Infants, children, pregnant women, older adults, smokers and people with chronic heart or lung diseases should stay indoors to reduce their exposure to the outdoor air," said Dr. Na-Koshie Lamptey, regional medical officer of health for the central region in Fredericton.

Poor air quality can aggravate their conditions and leading to increased medication use, and doctor, emergency room and hospital visits.

"If your home isn't air-conditioned, consider going to a public place (library, shopping mall, recreation centre) that is air-conditioned," said a statement from the department.

Schools take precautions

Jason Humphrey, spokesperson for the Anglophone West School District, said at least two schools in the region kept students inside throughout the day. Schools were following guidelines issued by the province, he said.

Some schools also cancelled after-school sports activities, including soccer games. 

"Middle school sports that were scheduled for today at schools within the Fredericton Education Centre and Oromocto Education Centre have been postponed," Humphrey said. 

Barbara MacKinnon, president and CEO of the New Brunswick Lung Association, said people who start to feel symptoms should contact their doctor or head to the emergency room. 

Reactions to air pollution depend on the individual, MacKinnon said, but in general she said people should reduce their outdoor activities. If they do go outside, they should monitor how they feel and check for symptoms.

"The more you do, the more you breathe," she said. 

Stéphanie Duchesne, the Base Gagetown public affairs officer, said the base's environmental team is also doing air quality testing.

"We realize this has an impact on them and on everybody," she said. "We want to reduce that impact and that is our priority right now."

She said fires are common in the training area, but the strong smell of smoke these fires are creating is not.

Duchesne said Base Gagetown has spoken to the province's Public Safety Department and discussed issuing a public safety advisory to residents living in the area but no decision has been made

"It has a lot to do with the wind, and wind direction will carry that smoke to different communities," she said. "The weather has not been very co-operative and that's why we're still dealing with these fires." 

Smells like campfire

Tim Ferguson, who lives in Lincoln, said he could smell smoke at home on Sunday night.

"You could see it in the streetlights last night in my subdivision," he said. "Everywhere you go you're around a bonfire."

Rick and Dondi Maceyka were travelling to Fredericton from Colorado and were excited to get a view of the St. John River — even if that meant it was under a cloud of smoke.

"For us it's delightful because of the river but it does smell," said Dondi.

Rick agreed.

"Smells like a lot of campfires and fireplaces," he said.

No plan to evacuate

She said Base Gagetown has been using forestry personnel with heavy specialized equipment to create fire breaks around the fires so they don't grow.

Fire crews were on scene all weekend and would now be assisted by two water bombers from Quebec. Water bombers were in the air all day Sunday and would return again Monday.

Duchesne doesn't recall having fires this late in the season with this much of an impact.

But she said there is minimal risk to the public. The closest fire to the edge of the base is still three kilometres away from it. The closest houses are even farther away from the fires.