A bolt of lightning appears to strike the ground somewhere past downtown Whitehorse as a thunder storm passes over the city during the early hours of July 1. Eight new wildfires were reported in the Yukon over the Canada Day long weekend, bringing the territory’s total wildfire count to 22 as of July 2. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Wildfire smoke leads to air quality advisory across the Yukon

Children, elderly people, pregnant women and people with heart or lung disease should limit activity

The office of the Yukon’s chief medical officer has issued an air quality advisory throughout the territory due to high amounts of smoke from wildfires in Alaska and central Yukon.

According to Andy Delli Pizzi, a medical officer of health with the Yukon government, the air quality in Whitehorse reached the “moderate risk” level on the air quality health index within the past few days.

Although this measurement is only conducted in Whitehorse, Pizzi reported that other communities such as Mayo and Pelly Crossing have also experienced brief moments of heavy smoke. He predicts these conditions will continue in the short-term.

“The forecast is for heavier smoke for Yukon territory in the coming days, so there’s still some uncertainty in terms of how severe the smoke will get for our communities,” he said.

The advisory lists shortness of breath, increased coughing and eye or throat irritation as possible symptoms from the smoke. It advises people to limit “outdoor activity and/or strenuous physical activity” if they experience these symptoms and to stop them if breathing becomes difficult.

Pizzi advises young children, elderly people, pregnant women and people with preexisting heart or lung disease to limit or avoid strenuous activity in the smoke. He also suggests that people who work outdoors should make a plan with their employers to ensure clean air time.

“It’s really time for us to watch the family members or community members who might fit into those high risk groups and provide them a little more support or provide them support if they need it,” he said.

Eight new wildfires in the Yukon were reported over the Canada Day long weekend, bringing the territory’s total wildfire count to 22 as of July 2. Most of the wildfire activity throughout the territory is located in the Dawson region, where four wildfires were reported since Friday, bringing the area’s total wildfire count to 11.

Although most of these fires are small, two are quite large. One wildfire in Hunker Summit — 27 kilometres southeast of Dawson City — is 3,000 hectares large, while another one in Pigue Creek is 44,000 hectares large.

According to Reuters, there were 354 wildfires that covered 443,211 acres throughout Alaska, as of the end of June.

Mike Fancie, fire information officer for Yukon Wildland Fire Management, said that an upper atmospheric ridge is pushing the smoke from the Yukon and Alaska fires towards Whitehorse.

“When an upper ridge takes place, that creates an unstable air mass that travels in a clockwise direction,” he said. “It’s travelling clockwise over central Alaska, picking up smoke there, carrying it over to central Yukon, picking up more smoke from these two fires and then taking it over Carmacks, Pelly Crossing, Whitehorse and so on.”

Fancie believes recent lightning storms are the likely causes of most of the fires in the Yukon. He noted that it can take a few days before an area struck by lightning might burst into a wildfire and become detectable.

“There’s always the possibility that lighting can strike a tree and heat can smoulder in the roots before it can become visible and smoky in a way that someone might call it in,” he said. “It would not surprise me if we continue to see new (wildfires) this week as a result of the lightning activity (last) weekend.”

Since the Hunker Summit and Pigue Creek wildfires are far away from human activity, Fancie said that fire response teams are focused on containing them rather than extinguishing them.

“If there’s a fire burning in a forest away from any human activity, it’s a good thing to let that fire burn because that’s part of a natural ecological cycle.”

“It thins out the forest in the way that nature intended it to because, on the one hand, if a forest gets too dense it also creates a greater density of fuel that will cause the next forest fire to become even more intense… on the other hand, it can thin out fuel and create space for new things to pop up. It creates more diverse plant life, more minerals, new nutrients for those plants. So it’s part of a cycle.”

Firefighters are responding to the two large wildfires through a process known as structure protection, which involves enacting measures to protect buildings and property at risk. Examples of these measures include installing sprinklers around a protected area, burning materials in the perimeter of a protected area that could be used as wildfire fuel and building a fireguard border made of soil.

Wildfire crews are also working to put out “spot fires,” which occur when a fire shoots a flame into the distance and starts another fire somewhere else.

As of July 2, there have been 50 wildfires throughout the territory. That’s about average for this time of year, Fancie said. The territorial ten-year-average is 107 wildfires per year.

Although he’s not sure if the smoke in the air will get worse or not, Pizzi said Yukon residents should be prepared to see more smoke in the coming months.

“It’s still early in the wildfire season, so I think it’s important for people to be prepared for wildfire smoke through the whole duration of the summer because it might be something that we do experience intermittently or for more long periods.”

Contact Joshua Azizi at joshua.azizi@yukon-news.com

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