Why Toronto should expect another smoky summer

With little snow this winter, conditions could lead to repeat of last summer's haze

It's officially wildfire season in Ontario, and with little snow this winter, it could be another smoky summer in Toronto.

Last year was Canada's worst wildfire season on record. Around the country, fires blazed through the summer, communities were evacuated — including the capital city of the Northwest Territories — and a hazy blanket covered large parts of the country. In Toronto, air quality warnings were prevalent in June.

RELATED: Ontario's summer marred by wildfires and unhealthy smoke

Experts say Torontonians should expect more smoke this summer, as Ontario's fire season officially starts this week.

"We had limited snowpack this year across the country (and) we had relatively dry conditions this spring and hotter weather," said Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.

"We've got conditions that are right to make a wildfire risk."

SEE ALSO: Alberta wildfire season is off to a blazing start, 57 fires burning

Canada is still experiencing drought conditions, with new wildfires already starting this year, according to Brian Simpson, a scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. He says seasonal forecasts for May and June show above average temperatures across the country.

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"Therefore, we anticipate an early start to the fire season and more widespread fire activity than usual," he said in an email.

Wildfire smoke could become part of Toronto summer

Simpson says conditions are drier in western Canada, while a three-day winter storm last week could reduce the risk of wildfires in northwestern Ontario.

RELATED: Hopes April showers mitigate fire risks in northwestern Ontario as season begins

Smoky conditions in Toronto will depend less on proximity to wildfires and more on which way the wind is blowing, says Feltmate, as wildfire smoke can travel thousands of kilometres.

This year's conditions aside, Feltmate says a changing climate will likely make future summers smokier.

"We're going to have to prepare for these extreme events," he said. "When people talk about the new normal in the weather, they have to realize there will be no new normal. It's just evolving levels of risk and challenge."

Health risks, and how to stay safe

Air pollutants from wildfire smoke can irritate the eyes and cause coughing and difficulty breathing. Some people are more vulnerable to the effects of smoke, like young children, seniors, pregnant women and people with chronic heart or lung conditions. Outdoor workers can also feel the effects more due to increased exposure.

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After last summer, Toronto Public Health created a "wildfire smoke response strategy" to guide health measures and keep people safe when the air gets hazy. It also offers tips on how to protect yourself from smoke.

EXPLAINER: AQI, AQHI, and your health - Air quality ratings explained

Dr. Howard Shapiro, the public agency's associate medical officer of health, says there were no serious cases related to wildfire smoke exposure in the city last year, according to the data from emergency departments and hospitals. But he says Torontonians should still take precautions to protect their health during the haze.

"It's about trying to limit your time outdoors and the amount of intense activity or exercise you do outdoors," Shapiro said.

He recommends monitoring Environment Canada's air quality health index (AQHI), which measures air quality based on how it will impact human health, before going outdoors in the summer.

In Toronto, the AQHI usually sits around three on a scale of one to 10. At the height of last summer's wildfire season, when smoke from faraway fires covered the city, the AQHI maxed out at 10, briefly making Toronto's air the most polluted on the planet.

Explainer: Wildfire smoke serious health impacts. Less common symptoms, but are more serious. Poor air quality. Baron (Government of Canada)

(Source: Government of Canada)

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DON'T MISS: What we can learn from Canada's record wildfire season as a new one approaches

If you need to go outdoors during hazy conditions, wearing an N95 mask can help, Shapiro says, but it's important to remember masks don't protect the eyes and can also make breathing difficult in some cases.

Protecting the indoor air in your home is also important Shapiro says, so is keeping windows sealed and ensuring the air in your home filtered.

"You can prepare now," he said.

Ontario's fire season officially started Monday, and runs through Oct. 31, during which outdoor burning regulations are in effect.

WATCH: How wildfire smoke affects the health of Canadians

This article, written by Ethan Lang, was originally published for CBC News.

Thumbnail courtesy of Parth Shah/Pexels