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Edmonton air quality presents very high health risk, disrupts long-weekend plans

Heavy smoke blankets Edmonton's river valley on May 20, 2023. (Paige Parsons/CBC - image credit)
Heavy smoke blankets Edmonton's river valley on May 20, 2023. (Paige Parsons/CBC - image credit)

Severe smoke blanketing Edmonton has disrupted long-weekend plans and sparked health concerns.

Hot temperatures and dry, windy conditions continue to challenge Alberta firefighters this weekend, as thick wildfire smoke settles over Edmonton and surrounding areas.

On Saturday, the air quality health index (AQHI) was at 10+ — very high risk, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada, which is forecasting similarly high levels of smoke pollution through the weekend.

Fort Edmonton Park was set to open for the season on Saturday morning, but as patrons arrived at the gates, they were told the park would stay closed due to the poor air quality.

"It's not safe for our farm animals to be outside in this weather, pony rides, wagon rides, we can't do any of that activity," Renee Williams, senior vice president, said Saturday. "We don't want to put anybody at risk with the air quality the way that it is."

Williams said people who had tickets for Fort Edmonton would be able to exchange them for a different day.

Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC
Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC

She said staff were hopeful the park would be able to open late in the weekend ,but said people should check Fort Edmonton Park's website and social media channels for updates

Sheila Godin and her family have been visiting relatives in Edmonton for a week, and showed up for Fort Edmonton Park's opening day early Saturday, hoping to take in the attractions before their flight back to Toronto.

 Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC
Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC

"I think they're doing the right thing closing it, I mean we can certainly feel the smoke and everything," Godin said. "It's just disappointing we can't go but we understand."

 Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC
Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC

The smokey conditions also canceled a city news conference to celebrate opening Fred Broadstock Outdoor Pool – which was set to be the city's first outdoor pool to open for the season.

The pool stayed closed for the day, and a city spokesperson said people should check the city's facility notifications page for news on operations.

Health risks

Still, not all Edmontonians were put off by the conditions. People could be seen biking, walking and even fishing along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River on Saturday morning.

Paige Parsons/CBC
Paige Parsons/CBC

But when the AQHI is at 10+, it's really best for everyone to try to stay indoors as much as possible with the windows closed, said Dr. Courtney Howard, a Yellowknife-based emergency physician who looks at the health impacts of wildfires.

"No matter your pre-existing level of vulnerability or your age, you should be staying inside with the windows closed and minimizing your exposure to the outside," Howard said in an interview Saturday from Oxford, England.

She said when air quality is as poor as it was in Edmonton on Saturday, being outdoors can mean breathing in huge quantities of a toxic mixture of combustion products which can enter the bloodstream.

She said children and older people can be particularly vulnerable to health risks of smoke exposure. Anyone who has to go outside can help protect themselves by wearing a well-fitted N95, she said.

Paige Parsons/CBC
Paige Parsons/CBC

Howard recommends indoor exercise, getting lots of sleep, and not becoming overly reliant on alcohol or caffeine.

She added that it's important for communities to have spaces where vulnerable people — particularly those who are homeless — can get out of the smoke.

City response

Earlier this week, the City of Edmonton activated it's extreme weather response because of air quality — for the first time ever.

The response was deactivated on Friday morning because the response only activates when there has been three consecutive days of an AQHI of seven or higher.

The AQHI did reach 10+ later on Friday and stayed at the very high risk level on Saturday. A city spokesperson said that while the emergency response was not in effect on Saturday, many city facilities were still open and welcoming in people.

The city has also distributed nearly 4,000 N95 masks to various social agencies and community hubs for anyone in need of a mask, including:

  • • Homeward Trust

  • • Hope Mission

  • • Boyle Street Community Services

  • • Bissell Centre

  • • Stanley Milner Library

  • • iHuman Youth Society

  • • CHEW Project

  • • The West End Shelter, operated by Jasper Place Wellness Centre

  • • The Neighbour Centre

  • • Youth Empowerment and Support Services

  • • Nekem