How will Canada wildfires affect Minnesota air quality in 2024?

A driver watches a wildfire
A motorist watches from a pullout on the Trans-Canada Highway as a wildfire burns on the side of a mountain in Lytton, B.C., on July 1.
Darryl Dyck | Canadian Press via AP 2021

Drought, strong winds, warmer temperatures and a dry winter have created perfect conditions for a dangerous wildfire season, both here in Minnesota and across the border in Canada.

Last summer, heavy smoke drifted south, breaking several poor air quality records in the North Star State.

Earl Simmons, acting director of the Manitoba Wildfire Service, told MPR News Thursday that the spring drought codes for the province are the worst his 22-year veteran forecaster has ever seen.

“It’s very concerning for us how we’re going to make out this summer,” Simmons said.

Wildfire risk is predicted to be above average in Canada as spring continues, according to the North American Seasonal Fire Assessment and Outlook. Also complicating the situation are zombie fires — blazes that have continued to smolder underground throughout the winter. As of Apr. 10, 55 fires from 2023 were still burning and 15 new fires ignited.

“People see smoke, often up through the snow in the wintertime. And those fires, unfortunately, can turn into forest fires if they're not dealt with in the spring,” Simmons said.

Smoke rises in the distance
Plumes of dark smoke rise into the sky as a wildfire burns a few miles northeast of Waseca, Minn., on March 3.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Manitoba crews are spending time training to catch fires when they’re small. Manitoba joins Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as a member of The Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact, which shares resources like water bombers and personnel.

In his four decades with the Province of Manitoba, Simmons says the situation has worsened and continues to grow more dire — and deadly.

“The forest fires are getting more and more extreme. The fires are getting more and more volatile. It's becoming more and more dangerous for firefighters,” Simmons said. “In Canada last year we lost eight firefighters… [and] with the forest fires creeping into that wildland-urban interface, insurance claims were a record year last year.”

These stronger fires due to climate change mean more hazy skies and unhealthy air due to smoke. Kids, older adults, people with underlying health conditions and those in low socioeconomic statuses are most at risk, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. MDH reports more of the recent “bad air days” were caused by wildfire smoke from Canada, rather than blazes in Minnesota.

Canada Wildfires Minnesota
Smoke from Canadian wildfires is visible near the Harvest Fellowship Church Thursday in Sauk Rapids, Minn.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times via AP

People are the cause of 90 percent of wildfires. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a useful guide to help stop fires before they start.

Stay on top of current red flag warnings, burning restrictions and your local weather forecast with the Updraft.

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