Hazy, smoky conditions engulfed Canada's capital city on Tuesday, with the federal Environment Department issuing a special air quality statement for the region.
The department said high levels of air pollution had developed in Ottawa, Gatineau, Que., and other nearby municipalities due to smoke from nearby wildfires.
Wildfires in Quebec and Southeastern Ontario over the weekend caused thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes.
Environment Canada was warning that wildfire smoke can be harmful to public health, even at low concentrations.
It advised people in the area to take precautions to protect their health and reduce exposure, including wearing masks, avoiding outdoor activities and contacting health-care providers if they experience irregular symptoms.
People with lung disease, heart disease, older adults, pregnant people and people who work outdoors are at a higher risk of experiencing health effects caused by smoke and smog.
Environment Canada is forecasting a high-risk air quality in the capital region through the week.
“Unfortunately, this weather pattern is sticking with us this week,” said Gerald Cheng, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, in an interview with The Canadian Press.
As of 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Environment Canada was assessing Ottawa's air quality as a nine out of 10 on a scale used to measure the severity of conditions, meaning it was high-risk to the local population.
Earlier in the day, air quality had been measured at 10+ or deemed as very high-risk.
“It's a very, very deteriorated air quality. It is the worst in Canada at the moment,” Steven Flisfeder, an Environment Canada meteorologist, said in an interview.
The Queensway Carleton hospital in Ottawa experienced “no significant changes” in patient volume due to the air conditions, said spokesperson Anne Fuller.
Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario spokesperson Paddy Moore says the hospital south of downtown Ottawa had not “seen an uptick” in patients either.
Nonetheless, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board was advising schools under its jurisdiction to keep students inside for recess.
The public school board cancelled a regional track meet scheduled for Tuesday. And First Avenue Public School, just south of downtown Ottawa, cancelled a field trip to Gatineau Park across the river in Quebec due to the air conditions.
The City of Ottawa also cancelled all outdoor recreational programs, activities and leagues operated by the city that were scheduled for Tuesday.
The campuses of Carleton University, Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa remained open.
The poor air quality garnered the attention of federal politicians on Parliament Hill Tuesday.
“I think we all noticed, even coming into work this morning, you can strongly smell the smoke and see it in the air, and we're even seeing dust and ash starting to accumulate on surfaces. And so, it is a little concerning,” Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said before the Liberal government's weekly cabinet meeting.
Blair said older adults, children and people with respiratory conditions should avoid outdoor activities and suggested that wearing a mask outdoors would be a “really good idea.”
“I have never seen this in my life. It's incredible! And I see a lot of people wearing the mask today,” Government House leader Mark Holland said upon arriving for the cabinet meeting.
Holland said the hazy weather was prompting him to discuss air quality in government buildings with municipal officials.
Liberal MP Steve MacKinnon, who represents the riding of Gatineau, Que., said he suffers from asthma and had trouble breathing Tuesday morning.
The smog, which came as a result of wildfires expanding across Canada, reached much of Eastern Ontario.
Fire adviser Shayne McCool, with Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, said Tuesday that wildfires near Cochrane, Ont., had seen “significant growth” in the last two days.
One wildfire tripled in size from 600 hectares to 1,840 hectares, he said.
Another fire near Cochrane stood at 1,239 hectares and was considered “not under control.”
“Certainly, we're seeing a lot more smoke in the air today and that's pretty obvious across most of the northeast (of the province),” he said.
Though McCool said there had been no official evacuations by Tuesday afternoon, some people in the area were asked to leave as a safety precaution.
Closer to Ottawa, a forest fire was set ablaze near Centennial Lake on Sunday and residents of Greater Madawaska - a municipality about 150 kilometres west of Ottawa - were evacuated from their homes.
The fire has since been “greatly suppressed,” Greater Madawaska Mayor Rob Weir told CTV News.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.
- With files from Tyler Griffin in Toronto and Michel Saba in Ottawa.