Fueled by unusually high temperatures, hundreds of wildfires are burning across Western Canada — and they’re sending their smoke south across the United States border.
Wildfire danger throughout Western Canada is “very high,” according to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System (CWFIS), with the majority of fire activity taking place in three provinces: Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Alberta. “Nationally,” the CWFIS’ most recent report reads, “fire activity has increased dramatically and is now well above average for this time of year.”
According to Mashable, more than 13,000 people in the province of Saskatchewan have been evacuated because of the fires, making it the largest wildfire evacuation in history for the relatively underpopulated province. The province’s premier, Brad Wall, told CBC News that the fires are “unprecedented” for the region, noting that the area currently burning is about 10 times the average. As of Monday, there were 112 fires burning across the province.
In Alberta, some 1,200 fires have burned more than 740,000 acres since April 1. Hundreds of residents have been put on evacuation alert as fires continue to burn throughout the province.
British Columbia is also seeing an unusually early and active start to the wildfire season, with roughly 200 wildfires burning across the province as of Monday. Officials in the province issued warnings to residents as smoke from the wildfires caused a drop in air quality; residents were told to avoid strenuous outdoor activity and to remain indoors.
John Innes, dean of the University of British Columbia’s faculty of forestry, told CBC News that climate change is helping to exacerbate Canada’s wildfire situation by creating more warm and dry areas across which wildfires can quickly spread.
“Longer term, we will see more fires. We will see the fire season extending, it will start earlier, it will go on later, and the fires that we get will be more intense,” Innes told CBC News.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the wildfires up north are causing a “tremendous amount of smoke,” and it hasn’t stopped at the border: smoke from Canada’s wildfires has been seen across Midwest and as far south as North Carolina, bringing a haze to the sky and turning sunsets fiery red. But the smoke also brings dangerous fine particles, which can diminish air quality and, in high concentrations, pose a public health threat.
Because of the path of the smoke — which moved primarily east-southeast, according to NBC News — air quality in Minnesota was particularly hard-hit. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said Monday that the wildfire smoke was responsible for the worst air quality levels in nearly a decade — at times, the air quality in the Twin Cities was equal or worse than air quality in places like Beijing, China or Sao Paulo, Brazil, cities known for their high levels of pollution.
Late Monday afternoon, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also released a smoke advisory for most of the state, warning residents that live east of the Continental Divide that smoke from Canada’s wildfires could impact air quality in those areas. The Denver International Airport also cautioned travelers that the thick haze created by the smoke could cause flight delays.
Smoke from wildfires contains a number of pollutants, including small particles that can enter the lungs through the mouth, nose, or eyes, and can aggravate existing health conditions like lung or heart disease. The elderly and the young — as well as those with respiratory or heart problems — are especially vulnerable to the health impacts associated with particle pollution. During a large-scale fire in 2007, six hospitals in the San Diego area saw a 25 percent increase respiratory illness diagnoses, and a 50 percent increase in asthma diagnoses, according to a CDC analysis.
The harmful impacts of wildfire smoke aren’t just limited to the areas directly surrounding the burn — according to a 2013 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report, 32 states were impacted by wildfire smoke conditions in 2011. The same analysis found that while 22 states experienced no wildfires during 2011, eight of those still had to contend with medium-to-high density smoke conditions for a week or more.
“Wildfire smoke can pose serious health risks to people hundreds of miles away from the sources of fires,” Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist with NRDC, said in a press statement when the report was released. “Wildfire smoke already clouds the skies of millions of Americans and because climate change will fuel more wildfires, that danger will rise.”