Courtney Wozniak spends every hour he can during the summer on the water in northern Saskatchewan, but he doesn't remember a time in the past 30 years that ash coated his car, house, or the boat on Candle Lake.
"I had a white shirt on and it looked like I rolled around the mud for a while. It was gnarly actually," Wozniak said. "It was actually snowing ash."
On Canada Day, there were 110 active fires in Saskatchewan and only about 10 were contained. During a week that normally sees cars lined up on the highways heading north for heat, boats, debauchery, and celebrations, this year saw an exodus of people travelling south.
"It's pretty smoky and it's dead actually," Wozniak said from his cabin. "Usually there's lot's of boats on the water and people on the beach and stuff. You can't even see across the lake right now."
With the fires raging and dry weather continuing, the yearly tradition of Roman Candle duels—shooting fireworks at people—had to be cancelled across northern Saskatchewan. There is a fire ban in the northern provincial forests and campgrounds in Lac La Ronge Provincial Park have been closed. Businesses aren't even allowed to sell fireworks in some of the provincial parks, including at Emma and Christopher Lake, known for their rowdy Canada Day celebrations.
"Usually we go to Candle Lake for Canada Day for the parade and everything, but they are done and the fireworks aren't happening," Wozniak said. "In town we saw people with masks."
Even without a nearby fire blazing, the thick heavy smoke coated the province for days leading up to the annual patriotic party. Environment Canada issued air quality statements province wide because "visibilities have been reduced to less than two kilometres in many areas especially in Central and Northern Saskatchewan. Air quality is poor in many areas due to the smoke. Smoke near the ground may cause potentially high health risk conditions." Throughout the week, the air quality has hit 12 on the index—seven to ten is considered "high risk."
By Wednesday, more than 4,000 people had been forced to leave their homes and communities and were staying in evacuation centres or hotels in North Battleford, Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Regina.
There is a benefit to the heavy smoke that's passed beyond Saskatchewan's border into the United States. The smoke is blocking the sun so that it's not hitting the ground and directly warming the fires, according to Steve Roberts with Saskatchewan's environment ministry. But it has also made it difficult for firefighting aircraft, with the bombers grounded on Tuesday and only the helicopters hitting the sky.
There are about 600 firefighters, 40 helicopters and 19 planes involved in fighting the fires. Other provinces have contributed firefighters and equipment, and a crew from South Dakota was on its way to help on Wednesday.
Jonathan Dunn lives and works in La Ronge, a town about 250 kilometres north of Prince Albert on Highway 2.
"They evacuated all the elderly and all the children under a certain age, pregnant women... then all the people that panicked left too," Dunn said. "Working and living in the north, [fires] are a yearly thing... But this one is a little closer than most years, and a littler earlier, too."
Dunn and his friend Emily Rucks decided that with the heavy smoke and silent streets they'd pack up and head south for some adventure.
"It was getting kind of thick and claustrophobic feeling," Rucks, who is originally from Southern Saskatchewan, said. "Saturday night was the worst. We went and tried to look for the fire. We were the only people on the highway that night actually. So we turned around."
"It's just a wall of smoke up there," Dunn added. "We also went for a boat ride to go look at the fire but we didn't get to the fire because it was too smokey and we didn't want to get lost on the lake."
It took two attempts to join a convoy, but Dunn and Rucks finally hit the highway and made it to Saskatoon on Tuesday, where the smoke continued to cover the city, which is a 3.5-hour drive to the south.
"There was a fire burning... there was a lot of burnt trees, still hot stuff, smoke," Dunn said of the drive.
In the end, to escape the smoke on what was supposed to be a holiday, Dunn and Rucks ditched their Saskatchewan Jazz Festival tickets and headed west to clearer air. JazzFest is the largest festival of it's kind in Western Canada and brings out around 85,000 music fans to venues around the city but the largest stage, which showcases the main acts is outside at the Bessborough Hotel gardens. For most of the week, acts like Michael Franti and Parab Poet & the Hip Hop Hippies were shrouded in smoke on stage, but it finally began to clear on Canada Day for a sold out show featuring The Roots. The crowd packed the gardens as people who had been spending the week hiding in their homes came out to breathe in some fresh air.