AS 138 wildfires continue to burn in Manitoba, military personnel are set to arrive Friday to help hit hot spots.
Up to 120 firefighting-trained Canadian Armed Forces members are being deployed Friday, most of them out of CFB Shilo from 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. They’re expected to remain in action until at least Aug. 10, following the provincial government’s call for help earlier this week as the fires forced hundreds to leave their homes.
Residents of four First Nations communities (Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi, Bloodvein and Berens River) have been evacuated by the Red Cross to Winnipeg because of the threat posed by fires to the east of Lake Winnipeg.
The flames hadn’t encroached on any structures in those communities as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the latest update given to Don Hallett, assistant director for the Manitoba Wildfire Service.
Crews are most concerned about the spread of fires on that side of the lake, as well as others that are still burning in the north and northwestern areas of the province, he said.
A little bit of rainfall Tuesday night didn’t do much to help, and may have worsened the situation with lightning strikes, Hallett said. Much more rain is needed, he said. Crews have been battling the fires for more than a week.
The wildfire service has 45 "initial attack" firefighters, with additional personnel to relieve them, and a 20-person crew from Nova Scotia was just brought in to help.
"Biggest concern now is definitely continuing dry (conditions) throughout the province, stronger winds and additional fires starting. We keep deploying our resources to priority areas to ensure that we’re protecting life and community and property... but as we get more and more new fires, it starts to definitely spread our workforce thin to attack those fires," Hallett said.
Minimal winter snowfall and current drought-like conditions set Manitoba up for an above-average wildfire season. It’s still not too far above baseline — roughly six more fires compared with the past couple of summers, Hallett said.
The smoke they bring has blanketed much of the country this week, throughout northern and Western Canada and parts of Ontario. Concerns about air quality are top of mind.
Suspended particles from the burning fires cause the hazy air, and short-term high exposure can lead to breathing problems, emergency room visits and hospital admissions for people with respiratory conditions, said Jeff Brook, an environmental health expert.
The University of Toronto assistant professor has been studying air quality since the 1990s. It’s best for people to stay indoors, and invest in air purifiers where possible, Brook said, but its not a long-term solution amid climate change.
"That works, but as this happens more and more and (goes on) longer and longer, it’s not the direction we want to head where everybody’s got to stay inside, which, sadly, is the main alternative right now," he said, urging investments in reducing carbon emissions.
Long-term impacts of breathing in this kind of smoky air are still being studied. In general, the particles cause inflammation and have been linked to heart and breathing problems. Specifics for short-term polluted air exposure — such as how long people can safely stay outdoors without suffering consequences down the line — aren’t yet known.
There’s growing evidence breathing polluted air during pregnancy leads to slightly premature birth, lower birth weight and respiratory infections early in life, said Brook, who is part of a team at the Boston-based Health Effects Institute studying birth outcomes in Australian mothers who were exposed to wildfire smoke.
The stress of being evacuated during a fire also has a powerful impact.
"I wouldn’t say that people should be panicking from what’s happened in the last few days. But these are all health effects that we do observe and how they add up to a person’s long-term health (including increases in health-care costs and chronic disease) has not really been quantified," Brook said.
"But we do know these sorts of things were predicted, they’re happening, and arguably they’re happening even more dramatically than we might have expected a few years ago."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.