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Minnesotans likely to see more smoke from 'zombie' Canadian wildfires

Lake Bemidji's horizon was obscured in a smoky haze off the Blue Ox Trail on July 20, 2021.
Larissa Donovan
/
KAXE
Lake Bemidji's horizon was obscured in a smoky haze off the Blue Ox Trail on July 20, 2021.

There wasn't enough moisture last winter to extinguish Canadian wildfires that are blazing again, leading to an early start to smoky skies above Minnesota.

BEMIDJI — In the far northern stretches of Canada, wildfires are blazing once again, leading forecasters and health professionals to predict another active season of wildfire smoke this summer.

These "zombie wildfires” from last summer — as Sanford Health’s Grant Coauette called them — went dormant over the winter. But without a lot of snow, Canada’s wildfire season has already started.

“These are things we're going to be seeing more frequently in a warming environment,” explained Coauette, a physician’s assistant at Sanford Bemidji. “There wasn't much snow in Canada, like there wasn't much snow around here, so that did not extinguish some of these fires. So now they're roaring again.

Grant Coauette, PA-C, at Sanford Bemidji.
Contributed
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Sanford Health
Grant Coauette, PA-C, at Sanford Bemidji.

"Anytime we get that north wind, we're going to be experiencing that wildfire smoke. And that doesn't affect everybody equally. It's going to affect the elderly more, the young more, and those with chronic health conditions.”

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency air quality forecaster David Brown said this summer doesn’t look as extreme as the last, but it will still be an above-average year.

Brown said beginning about a decade ago, the state began seeing more wildfire smoke events, leading to the smoky summer of 2021 and another extreme year in 2023.

“We are seeing that trend towards more frequent wildfire smoke events now every summer,” he said.

David Brown, air quality forecaster at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Contributed
/
LinkedIn
David Brown, air quality forecaster at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Brown noted the wildfires are in the forests of northern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia: remote areas that don’t threaten population centers.

“Canada has been experiencing some severe drought over the last few years and they've seen warmer, drier winters the past few winters, which really does not help the drought situation. ... The drought is still extreme in the western parts of Canada,” Brown said.

The MPCA issues air quality, or AQI, alerts. Sensitive groups such as the elderly, young children and those with chronic conditions should take precautions before heading outdoors while air quality is poor.

Coauette explained that the large particles in the air from wildfire smoke are inflammatory — which can cause additional issues for those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, emphysema and kidney disease.

“As your body fights off the inflammation, that produces excessive mucus. All kinds of symptoms of COPD and asthma [include] excessive inflammation and mucus production, so it's best if we can try to avoid inhaling [smoke particulates] in the first place,” he said.

Coauette recommended these groups stay indoors in air-conditioned rooms with a good filtration system during poor air quality days. Masks such as N-95s are also effective for smoke particles.

Larissa Donovan has been in the Bemidji area's local news scene since 2016, joining the KAXE newsroom in 2023 after several years as the News Director for the stations of Paul Bunyan Broadcasting.