This season has produced over 550 wildfires across the province of Saskatchewan, and although Saskatoon has felt the effects of the resulting smoke, students from the University of Saskatchewan are facing several other challenges as more than 100 fires continue to burn.
According to a recent update released by the Government of Saskatchewan, as of July 3 there are 107 active fires in the northern parts of the province. Travel is not recommended and fire bans are in place, including the prohibition of fireworks. Due to extreme wildfire hazards in La Ronge, La Loche and Pinehouse areas in particular, the Ministry of Environment continues to recommend avoiding non-essential travel to or through these areas.
Toddi Steelman, executive director and professor for the U of S School of Environment and Sustainability, has spent the last 15 years researching wildfires and is trying to understand how communities can better prepare for these types of fires before and after they arrive.
“Typically what we worry about with university students is that they want to get out and do their run, or go biking or get their exercise in. With the air quality as bad as it has been, when you are doing exercise where you are really exerting yourself a lot and breathing really deeply, that’s something you want to avoid,” Steelman said. “You don’t want to be taking that particulate matter deep into your lung tissue because that’s what creates risk.”
During the last week of June, Saskatoon experienced several smoky days that were rated as 10+ on the Air Quality Index scale, which is the extreme end of the index.
The U of S Wellness Resources department released an announcement addressed to the campus noting that those at greatest risk include anyone being active or simply working outdoors. For many Saskatoon residents, these advisory warnings will suffice. However, several students are dealing with more than just the air quality risks.
Becky Whaley is a medical student at the U of S who also works as a registered nurse at La Ronge Health Centre. She has experienced the effects of the wildfires closer to the source.
“People are scared. People are frustrated. It’s difficult letting go of control and the fires have forced us all to let go. A friend talked about leaving the community for medical reasons. She said it was indescribable leaving her home in the wake of massive fires,” Whaley said.
Considering several students like Whaley go home for the summer, or are originally from some of these northern communities, they currently posses additional concerns requiring attention.
Steelman acknowledges this struggle and recommends taking advantage of on-campus resources.
“[Students] may not know what is going on, communication could be cut off, you may not know what is happening to your family or you may not know what is happening to your home. That can be really stressful, so seeking some help or advice on campus about that anxiety or that stress is something you can think about,” Steelman said.
Medically the most significant issue is the smoke, Whaley admits, acknowledging that several patients in La Ronge demonstrate an increased shortness of breath and other respiratory issues. Medical staff are evacuating those individuals who are at the highest risk for complications.
Steelman looks to climate models to better understand the 1.4 million hectares burning across Canada right now, 400 thousand of which are here in Saskatchewan. She believes there is more where it came from.
“I do think this is a sign of things to come in the future, so what that suggests is that as a society we have to learn how to coexist with fire better,” Steelman said.
Coexisting is the key for Steelman, as she insists that we as a species are rendered absolutely powerless to the persisting wildfires.
“We are at the mercy of mother nature right now, so until the weather shifts, until we see some rain or until temperatures cool down a bit, we are not going to see a whole lot of relief from it.”