Smoke, forest fires may pose greater risk to cottagers, experts say

Fire spreads across a Canadian forest in the distance, smoke billows upward as helicopter flies away Photo by Dino Adventure/Shutterstock

As a layer of smoke and hundreds of forest fires force eastern Canadians to evacuate their homes, experts suggest cottagers may be more at risk than urban populations.

Natural Resources Canada believes the fires erupted at the start of June following a Quebec thunderstorm. Daniel Thompson, a forest fire research scientist for Natural Resources Canada, says a forest that dried up after several weeks of intense heat likely caught fire after being struck by lightning.

Since then, over 200 fires have spread across the eastern provinces. In a June 8 press conference, Premier François Legault said the fires are stabilizing now that Quebec is getting reinforcement. However, evacuees from western and northern Quebec will not be able to return home until at least June 13, which includes the over 2,200 people from Lebel-sur-Quévillon now staying in Senneterre, who make up only part of the province’s 13,500 evacuees.

“It’s exceptional that given the intensity of the fires, for the time being, there have been no deaths or serious injuries. That’s what’s most important,” Legault said at the press conference.

According to Melanie Morin, a fire information officer with Quebec fire protection department SOPFEU, cottages are often built in tree-rich environments, making them more likely to require evacuation from a nearby active fire.

“There’s definitely more risk if your cottage is in the forest, or if your community is in the forest, than if you live in a large urban city,” she says. “Certainly there are many areas where fires have impacted cottage country.”

Of the 160 active fires recorded in Quebec on June 7, Morin says at least 100 were considered “out of control,” meaning the protective measures implemented by SOPFEU were ineffective at containing them. The province’s largest fire on June 7 spanned over 80,000 hectares, says forest fire research scientist Thompson. On June 8 the largest fire was 130,000 hectares—almost twice the size of Lake Simcoe—based on SOPFEU’s active fire map.

“None of the single fires in Quebec are record-breaking, there’s just a high number of them all at the same time,” Thompson says.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has also recorded around 50 active fires across Ontario on its provincial fire map.

According to Thompson, the biggest risk for Canadians in areas that don’t require evacuation is the smoke. SOPFEU has ranked air quality in many Quebec regions at 5/5, which Thompson calls its highest level of danger.

“It’s as bad as it gets,” he says. “Only every couple of years are they at this high of a level.”

High pressure brings smoke particles downward, creating poor air quality, says Environment Canada meteorologist Steven Flisfeder. But this level of smoke and air pollution is uncommon for eastern Canada because wind patterns tend to blow from east to west.

“Within the past 10 years, there hasn’t been an occurrence of this nature in this part of the country,” says Flisfeder. “It’s something that we tend to see in western Canada.”

This type of poor air quality could cause symptoms like itchy eyes, dry throat, coughing, dizziness, and fatigue after only 30 minutes outside, says Flisfeder, adding that staying indoors, turning on air filters and AC, and closing doors and windows are the best ways to protect against smoke.

But Thompson believes cottagers may have a harder time following this advice. Since they do more outdoor activities like yardwork, cooking, and swimming, their cottages are more likely built for doors and windows to stay open.

“They don’t have a lot of those mitigation measures like you would in the city, like an air conditioner,” Thompson says. “Cottagers are more exposed to air quality issues, even inside.”

In case the air quality indoors is still dangerous, Flisfeder recommends travelling to community centres, malls, or any other public spaces with AC. But smoke also decreases visibility, which makes driving on rural roads and boating more dangerous.

Environment Canada expects the smoke to linger in Ontario until around June 10, but Thompson says Quebec forest fires will rage on for at least another week. Canadians are encouraged to continue following the Government of Canada’s guidelines to protect themselves from wildfires and smoke.

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