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B.C. Wildfires: Vancouver's natural beauty shrouded by haze and smoke

“Where’s the mountains?”

That was Emilia Zhang’s question as she and her family, visiting from Beijing, posed for a requisite Vancouver shot along the seawall near Canada Place Monday. 

There were the iconic sails of Canada Place. A Disney cruise ship. And right where the North Shore mountains should have been was, instead, a thick blanket of grey haze. 

“It’s a little disappointing,” said Zhang, 18. “But we are having a good visit. The city is very beautiful, but it would be nicer if you could see clearer and more far.”

As haze and smoke from more than 100 wildfires burning in the B.C. Interior settled over the south coast for the fifth day, Metro Vancouver renewed its air quality advisory for the region due to high levels of fine particulate matter, which could seep indoors and have prompted a spike in emergency calls and hospital visits from people with respiratory and other conditions. 

It’s also startling some visitors who came here expecting blue skies, pristine air, and picturesque mountains. 

Ruth Yakobu was visiting Vancouver for the first time from the U.S. and had been puzzled about what she thought was clouds hanging over the city. 

“I was wondering why it’s so cloudy when it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain,” said Yakobu. 

When told about the wildfires in the Interior, understanding dawned. The northerly winds that had pushed the smoke from the Interior to the south coast on Thursday also pushed it down into Washington state and as far south as Portland, Ore. 

“We’re also affected in Seattle,” she said, noting hazy conditions during Saturday’s Seafair Weekend in Seattle when the aerial demonstration by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels wasn’t as visible in the sky. “We were told some fire in Canada came down to Seattle.”

The B.C. Day long weekend is the busiest long weekend for Spokes Bicycle Rentals near Stanley Park, and while the store is busy, manager Brian Vetter believes some people are put off by the hazy conditions.

“I’m sure if there’s 10 people that hear the news they shouldn’t over-exert themselves, one or two may decide not to go for it,” he said. “I’m guessing 10 per cent, but it’s hard to quantify.” 

Vetter said some of his staff who usually cycle to the Georgia Street store have been taking transit instead because they’re concerned about air quality. Some people, however, aren’t too bothered. 

“People from L.A. think this is great,” he said with a laugh. “It’s worse there. Hot and smoky. At least here, the haze keeps temperatures cooler.”

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The smoke is here to stay for at least another week, said Environment Canada. A long-range forecast calls for a frontal system that may bring showers to some areas on Sunday or Monday. 

“We haven’t had much rain or strong wind to clear it out,” said meteorologist Jennifer Hay, adding a westerly wind had swept through Vancouver Saturday to Monday, bringing some relief to areas close to the water, but hasn’t been enough to improve the air quality health index, which has been sitting at a 7 — considered a high health risk — since Thursday.

The drifting of the smoke from the Interior to the south coast had brought some relief to residents living near the wildfire zone, but since the northerly wind had eased, the smoke has stagnated and settled in, said Hay. “Kamloops (Monday) is off the charts. On a scale of 1 to 10, they’re currently at 15.” 

About 400 firefighting personnel from New Zealand, Australia, Mexico and the U.S. are expected to arrive in B.C. this week, bolstering the more than 3,800 firefighters responding to the wildfire situation, which was declared a provincial state of emergency July 7. 

chchan@postmedia.com

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