Air quality warnings issued for Sask. communities as wildfires continue to burn

·4 min read
A waterbomber flies over a wildfire in the La Ronge area this week.  (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)
A waterbomber flies over a wildfire in the La Ronge area this week. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)

Wildfires in Saskatchewan have caused the evacuation of the Whelan Bay area around Whiteswan Lake and outages of both SaskTel and SaskPower north of La Ronge.

And with hot, dry weather expected over the next few days, the wildfire situation will be monitored closely, Steve Roberts, vice president of operations with the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, said at the provincial news conference Friday.

There are currently 137 fires burning in Saskatchewan, bringing the annual total to 382, that's 170 more than the five-year average.

The winds shifted, blowing from north to south, causing increased smoke conditions throughout Prince Albert, Saskatoon and even down to Regina.

"It has cleared off some of the fires in the north, which will allow some crews to get some better tactical advantages on a few of those fires," Roberts said.

 Trevor Bothorel/CBC
Trevor Bothorel/CBC

The smoky air and heat wave combination can take a toll on lungs, especially for people at risk of breathing difficulties or those who work outdoors. The Lung Association of Saskatchewan is advising everyone to take the warnings seriously.

"There's nothing more important than the ability to breathe, and so we always want to make sure that folks have every opportunity for clean air," said Erin Kuan, the association's president and CEO. "We have to take these first fire warnings very seriously."

If people are at risk, such as children, older adults, pregnant or have lung conditions, they should limit their time outside, limit the intensity of their activities, and be in areas where there is good air circulation.

Government of Canada
Government of Canada

"Rigorous exercise can actually increase that amount of oxygen that you need by up to 20 times," she said. "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."

The air quality warnings are spread throughout the province. The Buffalo Narrows region, about 752 kilometres northwest of Regina, is currently at moderate risk, but is expected to be at very high risk or high risk throughout Friday and Saturday.

Prince Albert, 360 kilometres north of the capital, is also listed at very high risk until Saturday night. Saskatoon, 260 kilometres northwest of Regina, is at a high risk until Saturday night.

Don Somers/CBC
Don Somers/CBC

When places are designated to be at very high risk, children, seniors and at-risk populations should avoid strenuous outdoor activities. People not at risk should reduce outdoor activities if they experience coughing and throat irritation.

A week ago the wind started pushing the smoke and fires toward Stanley Mission and Grandmother's Bay, pushing the repsonse in the north into high gear.

"We're keeping a close eye on the smoke conditions and the fire conditions as well and the wind conditions," said Maurice Ratt, emergency response coordinator with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB).

The band is keeping tabs on fires about 700 kilometres north of the capital Regina, near Grandmother's Bay, Stanley Mission, Sucker River, Hall Lake, La Ronge, Rabbit Creek and Creighton Junction. Water bombers and helicopters have been out fighting the fires, along with ground crews from a number of departments.

"The weather's been erratic. Sometimes it helps us. A lot of times it doesn't, especially with the smoke conditions. We can't really get our crews in or bring in the helicopters safely, as they cannot see where they're landing or dropping," Ratt said. "It's been difficult."

Northern wildfires not as bad as 2015: Ratt

This year however is not as bad as 2015 when there were massive wildfires burning throughout the region. But, Ratt said people are nervous about the smoke.

"I think it's bringing back a lot of memories from 2015," Ratt said. "Some of the members did self evacuate from Grandmother's Bay. And I've been getting messages here from La Ronge to see what the conditions are on a daily basis. So I try to provide what's given to me."

Ratt said the region needs rain.

Anyone going to the area for camping or other reasons, should keep checking the LLRIB emergency response info page online, and check for road closures due to the wildfires, he said.

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