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Wildfire battles continue under heat, air quality alerts over most of Canada

The battle against hundreds of wildfires continues today as large swaths of Canada remain under either heat or air quality warnings.
A man walks to work wearing a mask near Parliament Hill, Wednesday, June 7, 2023 in Ottawa. The battle against hundreds of wildfires continued Thursday, as almost every jurisdiction in Canada was under either heat or air quality warnings from the federal government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The battle against hundreds of wildfires continues today as large swaths of Canada remain under either heat or air quality warnings.

Dozens of alerts remain in place for unseasonable heat or smoky air quality that has millions of Canadians coughing and squinting.

Forecasts suggest that air quality risks for the Greater Toronto Area, the Niagara region and southwestern Ontario will only increase through the end of the week.

The Toronto District School Board joined several of its counterparts across the region in cancelling outdoor activities and moving recess inside for a second straight day. The poor air quality also prompted the Toronto Zoo to announce it would close early today.

After enduring one of Canada’s worst days in history for air quality, hard-hit areas in eastern Ontario, including Ottawa, were expected to see some relief with low to moderate risk forecasts on the air quality index.

Special air quality statements remain in place for much of Ontario and Quebec, as Environment Canada encourages residents to limit outdoor activities or avoid them altogether if they are vulnerable to the smoke.

Individuals are also changing their plans to enjoy the great outdoors and donning face masks when outside.

The eastern United States is also seeing the effects from wildfire smoke drifting south, with cities like New York and Washington, D.C., issuing air quality warnings of their own.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounded flights out of Philadelphia International Airport on Thursday morning and slowed traffic to and from New York City area airports as wildfire smoke reduced visibility.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke on the phone with U.S. President Joe Biden about the issue on Wednesday. Both leaders agreed the situation pointed to the urgency of addressing climate change.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre database showed 440 fires burning in nine provinces and two territories. More than half were considered out of control.

The amount of land burned surpassed the 40,000-square-kilometre mark Wednesday, making the 2023 fire season Canada’s fourth-worst on record before the summer has even officially begun.

At the current pace of burning, the all-time record is expected to be surpassed by next week.

There has been no loss of life, although property and infrastructure damage has been significant.

In Quebec, some hydro towers are in jeopardy. On Vancouver Island, a small wildfire cut off the only major highway linking Port Alberni, Tofino and Ucluelet to the rest of British Columbia.

Alberta has lifted its state of emergency following a very difficult May, during which 314 fires burned more than 12,000 square kilometres of forest and prompted thousands of people to flee their homes. Still, 65 fires remain burning in that province, 17 of them out of control.

In Nova Scotia, the Tantallon fire that destroyed 151 homes has been contained, but the Barrington Lake fire, which has damaged or destroyed at least 60 homes and cottages, remains out of control.

Quebec is now facing the toughest challenge, with 163 fires burning, 117 of them out of control.

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre has warned the high demand on his troops for disaster assistance is straining the military’s overall capacity.

More than 500 soldiers and military specialists were deployed in Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia in response to the fires as of Wednesday, along with equipment including waterbombers and other aircraft.

Nearly 1,000 international firefighters from the United States, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand were also in Canada to help, with another 109 from France expected to arrive in Quebec.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.

The Canadian Press