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Morning sun reflective of Saskatchewan forest fires

Blood red sunrises greet Canadians as fires burn, evacs rise

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, July 5, 2015, 6:18 AM - UPDATE: Northwesterly steering winds impacting eastern Canada on the weekend created hazy, red skies to greet many Canadians at dawn on Sunday, and again on Monday; however, southwesterly winds are expected take over in the week ahead, which will aid in eliminating smoke that has been hovering over eastern Canada and the U.S., says Weather Network meteorologist Erin Wenckstern. The transition is expected to happen in the following few days, leaving a decent coverage of smoke to linger, clearing out through the day Monday.

The red sun rises and orange skies in many provinces are a visible manifestation of this year's worsening wildfire situation.

All the extra particulate matter in the skies is coming from the parched and sweltering western provinces, which have been struggling with a wildfire season that has already almost outstripped last year's.

Sunday morning's sunrise in Ontario and Quebec, far removed from the west, was blood red, enough that you could look directly at the sun's disk for at least an hour after it rose above the horizon. Monday's was little better.

And for westerners, the hazy skies mean worsening air quality and an evacuation emergency now affecting almost 12,000 people in total so far. 

In B.C., the phenomenon is well beyond simple red sunrises. The province's own wildfire season is bringing even more noticeably smokey skies to the province, with a golden glow and drastically dimmed sunlight visible in the atmosphere as far as Vancouver Island.

Almost 3,000 fires have burned across the four western provinces in 2015, burning a total of 460,000 hectares so far with more than half the season to go.

By contrast, western wildfires burned some 431,000 hectares last year, and there were 3,500 fires in total in all of 2014.

That's a lot of smoke and ash in the air, so while people in central Canada may be wowed by the dimmer skies and red sunrises of this weekend, some parts of the west have seen that phenomenon for more than a week.

Photo: Les Walsh, Craven, Sask.

What does that do to the weather?

Weather Network meteorologist Matt Grinter says all that extra particulate matter in the atmosphere, blown east by the jet stream, is enough to actually alter weather patterns somewhat.

It's a bit of a two-edged sword: Although the thicker atmosphere keeps some sunlight from penetrating, it also traps heat in a sort of mini-greenhouse effect, acting as an insulating blanket.

"It wouldn't feel like you were getting a tan as much, but you would have very muggy conditions," Grinter says.

In the past, major volcanic eruptions such as Tambora in 1815 Indonesia have belched so much particulate matter into the air, it was enough to block enough sunlight to lower the average global temperatures, leading to widespread climate disruptions and famine.

Grinter says that's not likely to happen from Canada's wildfires. Although they are widespread, the amount of smoke is neither global nor prodigious enough to have an impact.

One thing people in eastern Canada have been spared is a major decline in air quality, as the smoke is being ferried high enough in the atmosphere to not have an impact on most people.

That's not the case in the west, where air quality advisories have been in effect in all of Saskatchewan for a week, spilling over into Manitoba and Alberta and occasionally as far north as the Northwest Territories. Smoky sunsets are visible in B.C., which is also dealing with an intense wildfire season.

"A brief reprieve has been felt in southwestern portions of the province as both visibilities and air quality have improved," Environment Canada's advisory for Saskatchewan reads. "However, winds will shift to the northwest later today bringing more smoke southward."

More evacuations likely

The wildfire situation has reached crisis levels in Saskatchewan, with new evacuations ordered this weekend.

Saskatchewan officials said Saturday that 51 communities were under full or partial evacuation. More than 5,000 people are out of their homes already, and an additional 7,900 were ordered to evacuate in the north Saturday, with around 5,000 of those to be housed in Cold Lake, Alta.

Firefighters were forced to retreat before the fires Friday in the area of Montreal Lake First Nation, where five houses and a trailer have burned, according to CTV News. Firefighters returned to the area Saturday.

Temperatures on the Prairies have dropped to the low 20s thanks to the passing cold front that brought major storms to Saskatchewan on Saturday, but Weather Network meteorologist Nadine Hinds-Powell says they will rebound to the upper 20s by midweek, with little rain ahead for at least the next couple of days. Wildfire risk in the west remains high to extreme.

SOURCE: The Weather Network | CBC News | CTV News

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