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Wildfire in Canada forces thousands to evacuate as smoke causes dangerous air quality

Officials warning of hotter temps this summer
Officials warning of hotter temperatures this summer after record-breaking 2023 03:46

Thousands of residents from a Canadian town are being urged to evacuate amid a fast-growing wildfire that has resulted in poor air quality and reduced visibility.

The blaze in northeastern British Columbia started Friday and almost doubled in size by the following day, reaching about 4,200 acres. BC Wildfire Service maps showed the fire burning just a few miles west of Fort Nelson's city limits. Fort Nelson is located in the far northeastern corner of British Columbia, about 995 miles from Vancouver. Fort Nelson and the Fort Nelson Indian Reserve have a combined population of about 3,000.

The wildfire smoke coming from British Columbia is causing widespread poor air quality and reduced visibility, a Sunday alert said.

Online footage shared by locals from the Fort Nelson wildfire showed thick plumes of smoke rising high into the sky, with houses in the foreground. In some photos, haze seemed to cover wide areas.

The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality and Fort Nelson First Nation issued a joint statement warning people choosing to stay that "emergency medical services are not available, nor are groceries or other amenities."

The municipality mayor, Rob Fraser, said most of the residents in and around Fort Nelson have been evacuated, adding that police were going door to door to ensure everyone got out.

"In moments of uncertainty, unity becomes critical," Fraser said in the press release. "Please evacuate calmly, our collective strength will be our resilience."

Health authorities said Fort Nelson General Hospital has been safely evacuated and closed until further notice.

Smoke rises from mutual aid wildfire HTZ001 in the High Level Forest Area
An image taken through a window shows smoke rising from mutual aid wildfire HTZ001 in the High Level Forest Area, which originated from the Northwest Territories in 2023 but flared due to strong winds, near Indian Cabins, Alberta, Canada May 10, 2024. ALBERTA WILDFIRE via Reuters

Authorities in Alberta also issued an alert about a wildfire 15.5 miles southwest of the oil sands city of Fort McMurray that could impact visibility on highways in some areas. No evacuation order has been given so far for the major Canadian oil city.

Fire restrictions will remain in effect in the area until conditions improve, officials said.

"Five crews of wildland firefighters, nine helicopters and air tankers worked on the southeast perimeter today. Windy conditions challenged firefighting efforts," Alberta Wildfire said Saturday, adding that an incident management team will be managing the wildfire.

The high winds pushed smoke across Alberta on Saturday, putting the city of Edmonton under an air quality advisory with hazard levels rated at 10-plus — or "very high risk" — forecast.

Meteorologists are not anticipating rain and have advised people to stay indoors.

While conditions should begin to improve Sunday night, they will likely remain poor through Monday or even Tuesday, officials said.

Canadian officials warned Sunday that people with lung diseases such as asthma, people with heart disease, older adults, children, those who are pregnant and people who work outdoors are at a higher risk of experiencing health effects from wildfire smoke. They recommended people who spend time outdoors wear a mask to reduce exposure to fire particles in the smoke.

"Wildfire smoke can be harmful to everyone's health even at low concentrations," officials said.

Canadian wildfire smoke polluting air across U.S. 02:12

In April, Canadian officials warned the country could face another catastrophic wildfire season after last year's historic fires

There were warmer-than-normal temperatures and widespread drought conditions across Canada this winter, officials disclosed. Weather outlooks indicate that Canada can expect higher-than-normal temperatures this spring and summer as well, setting the stage for wildfires. 

"With the heat and dryness across the country, we can expect that the wildfire season will start sooner and end later, and potentially be more explosive," Canada Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan said at a press conference.

Canada's wildfire season typically runs from May through October. The country is home to about 9% of the world's forests. 

In 2023, Canada witnessed a record number of wildfires that also caused choking smoke in parts of the U.S. and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate across British Columbia. That year, 19 counties in 11 states had multiple days with "very unhealthy" and "hazardous" air quality.

Smoke billowed to the U.S., blanketing portions of the East Coast and Midwest. Last June, New York City's air quality became some of the worst in the world in June as Canada's wildfire smoke blew in.

In 2023, Canada's severe weather caused over $3.1 billion in insured damages, officials said. 

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