Smoke hampers evacuation from fly-in town in Canada

Wollaston Lake fire
Wollaston Lake fire. Photo:

Residents in the northern Saskatchewan town of Wollaston Lake would like to evacuate because a wildfire is burning nearby, but:

  1. There is no permanent road access;
  2. Smoke from the fire is grounding aircraft trying to fly in and out of the small airport;
  3. A lake where a ferry runs in the summer still has ice on it.

Here is an excerpt from at article at

Smoke and shifting winds hampered efforts to evacuate a northern Saskatchewan fly-in community where a forest fire burned at the edge of town.

The smoke briefly cleared at Wollaston Lake airport Wednesday, allowing 200 people to be flown out of the remote community, about 840 kilometres north of Saskatoon. But at least 1,000 other residents remained hunkered down in two local schools.

The five-square-kilometre fire was burning next to the airport and winds were blowing smoke across the runway, shutting down access to the facility.

“The airport is in-and-out of service on a minute-by-minute basis and the road that was leading to the airport obviously is in jeopardy and is closed — temporarily we hope — because of smoke conditions or danger in that particular area,” said Saskatchewan fire commissioner Duane McKay.

McKay said officials are “investigating other options” to move people. But options are limited.

There’s no permanent road access to Wollaston and the lake, where a ferry runs in the summer, still has ice on it. McKay said officials are looking at using boats to move people across a small nearby bay, if it’s free of ice, or using helicopters. Calls for helicopter help have been made to Alberta and Manitoba, he said.

“It is our priority to move these people out as quickly as possible,” said McKay.

“While we would like that airport to open and we’d like to get these people out that way, it’s the simplest way, we are looking at other options to continue to accomplish the task that we’ve set out to do.”

There are about 30 homes in the hamlet along with 193 houses on the Wollaston Lake and Hatchet Lake reserves.

Fifteen aircraft lifted out about 240 people Tuesday from the hamlet and a nearby reserve. They were taken to shelters in Prince Albert


Residents have voiced concern about the ability to get out. Rescue co-ordinator Anne Robillard, who lives in Wollaston Lake, said flames were getting close.

“The wind’s shifting our way … and it’s going to go directly to us,” she said.

Robillardaid she was trying to remain calm even though she could see the fire advancing.

“Personally, I’m taking responsibility, so I’m not on the panicky side yet. I have to say that because I see the flames so close.”

Check out this satellite photo, and you’ll get an idea why roads are not very feasible in the vicinity of Wollaston Lake.

Smoke from Fourmile fire provides bonanza for researchers, bad news for firefighters and the public

smoke in Moscow
A woman wears a mask in central Moscow to "protect" herself from smoke from fires outside the city. August, 2010. Photograph: Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters

When the Fourmile Canyon fire was burning west of Boulder, Colorado in September, 2010, Jim Roberts, a chemist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, was surrounded by something he had previously studied at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Science Laboratory in Montana — smoke, and lots of it. In Missoula he used a new instrument they had built, a custom mass spectrometer, to examine the levels of isocyanic acid in the atmosphere and in smoke. Isocyanic acid has been difficult to detect with conventional measurement techniques. At Missoula, he measured the levels of the chemical in smoke generated when the researchers burned vegetation in the lab and in cigarette smoke.

When the Fourmile Canyon fire started, Roberts had the mass spectrometer at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

Here is an excerpt from the Daily Camera:

Isocyanic acid easily dissolves in water, which makes it possible for the acid to also dissolve into moist tissues in the body, including the lungs. The full health effects of exposure to isocyanic acid in the air aren’t fully understood, but the chemical has been linked to cataracts, cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Last September, the researchers had the opportunity to measure the presence of the acid in a real wildfire. On Labor Day, the Fourmile Fire began burning in the foothills west of Boulder, just a few miles upwind of the state-of-the-art atmospheric instruments housed at NOAA’s campus on Broadway.

“Boulder has a world-class atmospheric chemistry building and only once in its lifetime is it going to have a full-on hit from a wildfire,” said Joost de Gouw, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Science. “So just everyone in that building turned on their instruments.”

CIRES is a joint institute of the University of Colorado and NOAA.

The sensitive new spectrometer used in Missoula also picked up the isocyanic acid in the plume of smoke from the Fourmile Fire.

More information

Fourmile fire near Boulder
Smoke from the Fourmile fire as imaged by the MODIS satellite on September 6, 2010.

Smoke from Forest Service prescribed fire causes school bus crash

Mississippi Rx burn smoke crash

Smoke from a prescribed fire in southern Mississippi caused a chain-reaction crash that involved a school bus on Friday. The U. S. Forest Service conducted a prescribed fire near Bethel Road in Harrison County which produced smoke that mixed with fog, reducing the visibility to near zero. As the school bus entered the smoke on Highway 15, the driver quickly slowed down and was hit from behind, followed by a six-vehicle chain-reaction crash. Thankfully there were no serious injuries.

Mississippi Highway Patrol spokesman Master Sergeant Johnny Poulos said:

The conditions today were not favorable for safe driving. We have the fog that came in that actually kept the smoke down to the roadway. Just a really bad situation when you’re trying to drive and navigate, especially with a school bus.

The Forest Service had signs posted on the highway that warned drivers about the smoke. Spokesman Mario Rossilli released a statement for the agency:

Safety is a top priority for the National Forests in Mississippi. Fortunately, according to reports, there were no serious injuries sustained in the accident today. The National Forests in Mississippi has already begun what will be a comprehensive review of this incident. We are always looking for ways to further enhance safety. Prescribed burning is actually one method of creating a safer forest environment for visitors, including those in vehicles, by reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfire. Stakeholders, including local, county and state law enforcement are notified before burns are initiated. Our Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers are active participants in our prescribed burns.

Here is a video about the accident from WLOX in Biloxi, MS:

The future of wildland fire smoke research

JFSP smoke research planThe Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) has released their plan for wildland fire smoke research. The 58-page document outlines their priorities for funding smoke research through 2015.

Much of the emphasis appears to be directed at how to deal with the public’s perception and tolerance of smoke. Smoke is becoming an increasingly sensitive subject to the population due to larger wildfires burning for longer periods of time, concern about the effects of wildfire smoke on global warming, and prescribed fires continuing to be an important tool for land managers.

One aspect of wildfire smoke that Wildfire Today has written about frequently is the short and long term effects of smoke on the health of firefighters. On April 23, 2010 we covered the study that NIOSH and the U.S. Fire Administration are conducting about cancer among structural firefighters. We called out the land management agencies and the firefighting associations:

There needs to be a concerted effort to conduct a similar study on wildland firefighters. It should be led by a physician/epidemiologist and should evaluate the long term health and occurrence of cancer and other diseases among wildland firefighters. There is a lot of grant money out there and it should be possible to get some of it pointed towards this overlooked niche of firefighting.

Followups to that article are HERE and HERE.

The JFSP five-year plan does mention research on the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters, but at times it seems like an afterthought. For example, the objective for one of four research themes, “Smoke and Populations”, sometimes includes the “impact of smoke on populations” (page 26), and in other places it is described as “impact of smoke on populations and fire fighters” (page 21).

However, the plan does list some specific “Smoke Science Foci” that may benefit firefighters:

  • 2011: (SSP T3 -2): Epidemiological research/literature review to determine human health risk from high PM loadings.
  • 2011 (SSP T3-4): Fire fighter smoke health hazards: trends in health and exposure.
  • 2012 (SSP T3-5): Review of epidemiological research to determine human health risk from high PM, high ozone and high aromatic hydrocarbon loadings with a focus on synergisms between pollutants.

We hope that the “foci” turns into actual research.