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Wildfire smoke workshop teaches Albertans about dangerous impact of poor air quality

Wildfire season started early this year in Alberta and along with that comes the dread of smoke-filled skies.

The season traditionally runs from March 1 to Oct. 31, but Alberta Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen declared the start of the season 10 days earlier than usual last month.

The Calgary Region Airshed Zone (CRAZ) is hosting its first workshop on the health impacts of wildfire smoke on Monday in Canmore.

“Everybody, I find, gets a little more anxious when they look outside and all they see is a haze. What is it? What’s it doing to me?” said Jill Bloor, executive director of the Calgary Region Airshed Zone.

Since Alberta is experiencing warmer-than-normal temperatures and below-average precipitation in many areas of the province, it has led to a heightened wildfire risk.

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“Forest fires are burning in the province already. They may not be in our area or affecting us yet, but we know that there will be the effect of forest fires in this region. How severe and what the impact will be, we don’t know. What we want to do is give people information so that they could be informed how to protect themselves,” Bloor said.

The workshop will include staff from Parks Canada explaining the prescribed burns in Banff National Park and an expert from the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control talking about the health impacts of the smoke.

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Bloor said there will be practical information on using microsensors for air quality and how to build your indoor air filter.

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CRAZ measures air quality constantly with three stations in Calgary and one in Airdrie. The group is now requesting funding from the provincial government for a mobile device again this year.

The town of Canmore is expected to highlight their emergency response plan for extreme heat and wildfire smoke that went into effect in 2023.

“In 2019, the town of Canmore declared a climate emergency, so we use a climate change lens across all aspects of our emergency management program,” said Caitlin Miller, director of emergency management for the Town of Canmore.

“We rank hazards based on the likelihood that they will occur and the impact it has on the community. Extreme heat and poor air quality due to wildfire smoke were two hazards that were ranked high and they didn’t have associated emergency response plants for them. In 2022, we applied, for the Municipal Climate Change Action Centre climate resilience capacity building program grant to better understand the effects of extreme heat and wildfire smoke on the community, even including how it might affect wildlife,” Miller said.

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Miller said the town relies heavily on citizen science because the closest air quality monitoring system from Environment and Climate Change Canada is in Banff.

The town has come up with ideas to deal with the impacts of wildfire smoke like increasing access to cool and clean air spaces and adding more air monitors.

“People come here to enjoy the great outdoors and when the wildfire smoke takes away the views, there are days when you can’t see the mountains, it certainly does affect people differently here. They come to Canmore to experience being outside and when you can’t be outside, when it’s not safe to be outside, it certainly impacts people not just physically, but also mentally,” Miller said.

The town is working with stakeholders to help get the health precaution message out to locals as well as tourists.

“Anytime there are extreme conditions you’re putting yourself at risk if you were recreating outdoors whether it be extreme heat, extreme cold, air quality. We have some really great teams that rescue people but we want to make sure that our resources are available for those who need it and you’re not putting yourself at unnecessary risk,” Miller said.

The workshop will be held on March 11 at the  Canmore Recreation Centre.


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