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    Saturday, September 30, 2023

    Smoke is clearing in eastern U.S., but how long will Canada keep burning?

    In this image released by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Sudbury 17 wildfire burns east of Mississagi Provincial Park near Elliot Lake, Ontario, on June 4, 2023. Smoke from hundreds of wildfires burning in Canada has affected air quality across vast swaths of the U.S. East and Midwest which might have some effect on garden plants if the exposure is prolonged. (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

    TORONTO - As the haze started to lift in the northeastern United States, the wildfires in Canada that fueled all that smoke continued to rage on, with no real end in sight.

    While the wind patterns are not expected to blow more hazardous smoke across the border in the coming days, the cleaner air in the United States does not mean conditions have changed all that much for fighting the fires in Canada. Light showers early next week may offer some relief for the hundreds of firefighters working to control the flames, but it won't be enough to fully extinguish them. Meteorologists aren't sure how long the current fires will continue to scorch parts of Canada.

    "Conditions will be improving somewhat, but it's nowhere near enough rain to put the fires out," said Doug Gillham, a meteorologist and manager at the weather center for Canada's Weather Network. But the rain will at least make conditions less favorable for current fires to spread or new fires to develop.

    "Once a fire is out of control it takes a lot to put it out," Gillham said.

    There are more than 420 fires across Canada, according to officials. In the region around Quebec alone, the source of most of the smoke that drifted into swaths of the United States, there are 127 fires. More than half of the fires remain uncontrolled.

    Quebec residents saw a dip in temperatures starting Wednesday, after warm and sunny conditions fueled high levels of smoke during the first half of the week. On Friday, conditions remained partly cloudy and cool, which contributed to less smoke and reduced the amount of haze drifting into the atmosphere.

    "Conditions on the ground are not as severe or as extreme as they were but still horrific for those who are near the fires," Gillham said. "But the impacts are not as far-reaching, with less smoke being emitted."

    Most of Canada is bracing for sustained wildfire smoke into the weekend, including in Toronto, where many locals are considering whether to put daily outdoor activities on pause until conditions improve.

    Marci Rose typically runs outdoors four mornings a week. Although she and her running partner decided to run Thursday despite the poor air quality, in hindsight, "we should not have run," said Rose, 56, a Toronto-based occupational therapist. Experts say the safety of outdoor exercise depends on various factors, including health, fitness and age.

    "We see many of the same folks running every time we run, and there were a lot less people on the trail on Thursday," Rose said.

    During her 4.5-mile run, Rose didn't feel any different than normal, but after checking the stats on her Apple Watch later, she noticed that her heart rate was higher than usual, and her pace was slower. She's unsure whether other factors were at play, she said, but she can't help but wonder whether the decreased air quality slowed her down and increased her heart rate.

    Rose and her running partner are planning alternatives to running outside, she said, to ensure that they can continue exercising together if the smog stays.

    While some people haven't noticed any smoke-induced symptoms, others have experienced discomfort in recent days. Alexa Hecht, a Toronto optometrist, said she has seen an uptick in patients with irritated eyes since the onset of the wildfires.

    "The air pollution from the smoke can cause signs of eye irritation such as redness, dryness and even allergy on the eye," said Hecht, adding that she cautions patients against wearing contact lenses, and encourages them to wear sunglasses while outside.

    Many construction workers and landscapers, meanwhile, have carried on with their work amid the hazy conditions. Sean Christie, who owns Rugged Earth Landscaping Inc., said his crew - which works in central Ontario - has been largely unaffected by the wildfires so far.

    "We do truly focus on and take pride in the health of our crew and ensuring everybody is following protocol," said Christie, explaining that he has checked in with workers daily about their comfort level, and "not one crew member has brought it up as being an area of concern."

    Still, he encouraged his crews - many of whom wear personal protective equipment on the job, which reduces exposure to wildfire smoke particles - to take additional breaks as needed.

    While air quality seems to be improving in some places, Canadian officials warned that the country is expected to experience its worst wildfire season in recorded history. More bouts of intense smog are anticipated throughout the summer months, and experts say this is just the beginning.

    Looking ahead, if the wildfires continue to rage on, "it's a pretty big concern," Christie said.

    Davis Jamieson, a tennis director and coach, feels likewise.

    "Just alone this week, we probably had 20 to 30 hours canceled due to poor air quality," said Jamieson, who played outside for three hours on Monday, and "I could feel the effects of it right away." He experienced itchy eyes, and other players reported having similar allergy-like symptoms.

    Given the dire warnings about the upcoming wildfire season, Jamieson predicts that outdoor sports will be gravely affected.

    "I'm quite fearful of how this will impact outdoor sports going forward," he said.

    Quebec is projected to have a cooler than normal summer, according to meteorologists. Cooler temperatures could mean that the fires won't spread as fast, will produce less smoke and can't drift as high into the atmosphere, Gillham said. But cooler temperatures won't be enough to put the fires out. Drier than normal conditions are also expected across most of the regions where fires are burning. Gillham worries that the fires could be burning for a long time.

    Mark Robinson, a storm hunter and meteorologist for Canada's Weather Network, is concerned that the early fire season - which generally begins in July and August - could lead to a significant fire season in Canada overall. About 10.6 million acres have already burned in Canada this year, 15 times the 10-year average.

    "Are we going to see a normal fire season, but add on to what we've already seen, is it going to be an extremely damaging fire season in total?" Robinson said.

    A blocking pattern that allowed smoke to float down the coast on a northeasterly wind is already starting to break down and will return to its typical west to east movement pattern.

    "The typical summer pattern, the wind flow is not favorable to transport that smoke into the U.S.," Gillham said. "But it doesn't mean it couldn't happen."

    This may not be the last time the east will be impacted by the effects from the smoke, he added. But it's unlikely to cause the same levels of poor air quality that gripped the East Coast this week.

    "Hopefully, moving forward, all [the smoke] gives you are some pretty sunrises and sunsets and doesn't present the same health risks as what we have seen this week," Gillham said.

    - - -

    Ajasa reported from Washington.

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