Categories: Health & Wellness

Wildfire smoke prompts air advisory

SMOKE PLUME – A wildfire burning in Westlock County last week

Alberta Health Services has issued an air-quality advisory for the northern part of the province including St. Albert, but so far wildfire smoke hasn’t been causing significant concerns in the area.

Following several weeks with very little rain and high winds, wildfires have been a significant concern all around the province this spring, and there have been several days in recent weeks where the smell of smoke is apparent in St. Albert.

According to Alberta Emergency Management Agency provincial operations director Scott Long, as of 2 p.m. Friday afternoon the situation had improved significantly since Thursday. There are 41 wildfires burning, down from 42, and five out-of-control fires, down from 10.

Cooler weather, higher humidity and lower wind speeds have all contributed, but he noted the air-quality advisory remains in effect for the north and Edmonton zones.

Dr. Warren Kindzierski, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Alberta, said air-quality advisories are typically put into effect more as a precaution than anything.

“There is certainly the potential for air quality to deteriorate,” he said. “That’s not the case now but given there’s so many wildfires now and the way the wind can shift, an area could become smoky.”

He said wood smoke has nearly every different element imaginable in it, but it’s primarily the fine particles of carbon-based matter that cause problems for people.

“Smoke in the atmosphere, it gets a bit difficult to measure some of these trace elements, so they generally look at the physical mass of the particle,” Kindzierski said. “That’s why they talk about fine particle concentrations.”

While these concentrations can vary, the general public typically sees it in terms of haziness or smokiness in the air.

For most healthy people, the smoke doesn’t cause significant concerns or even discomfort.

“For a healthy person it’s really not that important of an issue, but for an asthmatic or an elderly person with a respiratory problem like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, those can sensitize and reduce the breathing capacity,” he said.

Jim Fowler, director of accommodation services with the seniors’ housing body the Sturgeon Foundation, said staff watch quality advisories carefully and make sure to communicate to residents the risks and ways to mitigate those risks, such as providing dust masks, but residents rarely take them up on the offer and this spring is no exception.

“I’ve been all over the Sturgeon Foundation (lodges) over the past week, and not one complaint,” he said. “However, we know that in the past, things have got pretty bad.”

So far, the foundation has not had any major issues with air quality, and Fowler added some residents with pre-existing respiratory issues are already on oxygen so it’s not really an issue for them.

Nonetheless, wildfire conditions could be unpredictable and AHS recommends in the event residents can taste or smell smoke in the air, they monitor their symptoms, minimize physical activity outdoors, and stay inside with doors and windows closed.

For more information visit www.albertahealthservices.ca/wildfire.

Doug Neuman: