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Albertans advised to watch for symptoms of smoke inhalation, as wildfires worsen air quality

Weather and health specialists are advising Albertans to remain vigilant for the health impacts of wildfire smoke, as fires throughout the province affect local air quality.

There are 74 active wildfires burning throughout Alberta, including 20 that are out of control, provincial emergency management officials said Friday afternoon.

Environment Canada has issued air quality statements for much of the province, such as the Drayton Valley, High Level and Grande Prairie areas.

“We expect that the air quality due to wildfire smoke [in the affected areas] is going to be such that healthy people will be affected by the wildfire smoke,” said Sara Hoffman, an Environment Canada meteorologist.

Air quality statements are issued when the air quality health index in a certain region is expected to reach seven — the high-risk threshold — or higher on the scale, and when smoke reduces visibility, Hoffman explained.

Air quality in other communities may also be affected by wildfire smoke, just less so, she added.

Albertans, particularly those living near active wildfires, should be cognizant of potential health symptoms, such as shortness of breath or trouble breathing, dizziness or chest pains, among others, Hoffman said.

Taylor Miller, a resident of Grande Prairie, Alta., about 460 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, is still recovering from a severe bout of nausea caused by the smoke.

Miller started feeling nauseous last Friday, with her symptoms worsening over the weekend, she said. She couldn’t keep water down, and had to leave work early Sunday because she kept throwing up.

“It was just a very horrible, awful experience,” Miller said.

View of a long road with a police car and smoke in the distance
Environment Canada meteorologist Sara Hoffman suggests people stay indoors to limit their exposure to smoke. If they go outdoors, they can wear a mask. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

She contacted her friends and mother, and posted on a local Facebook group, inquiring whether they were feeling any similar symptoms. Many posted in response that they were. 

“It made me really wonder what is specifically burning that is causing this,” Miller said.

“We’ve had multiple wildfires over the years … and none of the smoke has done that to me.”

Miller has slowly reintegrated some solid foods back into her system, but her appetite still isn’t what it was, she said. She’s also still feeling some light nausea.

Smoke can also pose an increased risk to people with underlying heart and lung conditions, seniors, young children and pregnant people, said Éric Lavigne, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s school of epidemiology and public health.

“[Many of those people] have an immune system that is more fragile, that is more vulnerable,” Lavigne said. “The inhalation of the fine particles in the air will likely affect them more than the general population.”

Research has shown that smoke can also affect a fetus, through a lighter birth weight or, in some cases, pre-term delivery, he added.

Hoffman and Lavigne suggest people go inside or somewhere with clean air, or wear a mask, if they notice symptoms coming. If they worsen, or become concerning, they should seek medical care.

Hoffman encourages people to check in on people they know who are among those who are potentially more vulnerable to smoke.

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement for the entire province of Alberta. Unseasonably hot, dry weather is expected this weekend, starting Sunday and lasting through Tuesday.

The weather will not help alleviate the smoke, Hoffman said.

Smoke often dissipates by floating up into the atmosphere, she said, but the heat will hold the smoke down.

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