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Air quality improves over Ottawa, but smoky skies could return on Friday

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People in the Ottawa-Gatineau area are breathing fresher air, as smoke and haze from wildfires in northern Ontario and Quebec moves out of the area.

The cleaner air allowed officials to resume outdoor recreational activities and programs across the national capital region, the Ottawa Redblacks returned outdoors for practice at TD Place and the city of Gatineau resumed outdoor operations.

However, Environment Canada warns it could be the end of the weekend before all the smoky, dirty area is completely blown out of the region.

"I think our saviour will be, come Sunday and Monday, we're going to see a weather system that’s over the Great Lakes, a cold front that's coming down," senior climatologist David Phillips told CTV News Ottawa on Saturday.

"We're not only going to see some widespread rain but we're also going to see a wind shift. Instead of from the north and northeast, it's going to be from the southwest. Ironically, the American air is going to give us a break."

Forest fires have led to poor air quality in cities across central Canada and the northeastern U.S. this week, including Toronto and New York. On Wednesday morning, Ottawa had the dirtiest air of all major cities in the world.

"You were like a tailpipe of all that smoke," Phillips said of smoke and haze from wildfires. "It was just emptying into the Ottawa Valley.

Ottawa has had 55 hours of smoky weather conditions this week, while visibility dropped from 24 km to 1 km on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"You could smell it, you could see it, you could feel the smoke. Clearly, the visibility was way down," Phillips told Newstalk 580 CFRA's Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron.

The air quality rating for Ottawa was 1 'Low Risk' at 2 p.m., after two days of 10+ "very high risk" air.  After having the worst air quality in the world on Wednesday morning, Ottawa had one of the best air qualities at 9 a.m. Thursday, according to IQair.

The air quality improved Thursday morning as the winds shifted slightly and some rain fell on the capital.

"We're better off today in Ontario and I think the reason for it is the cloud cover; we've got a lot of clouds," Phillips said, adding the clouds "saved us."

"You look up there and you could see the smoke, but you couldn't necessarily smell it."

Environment Canada does warn hazy conditions due to wildfire smoke could move back into the Ottawa-Gatineau area on Friday afternoon. Health officials warn the air quality will deteriorate to a "moderate risk" on Friday afternoon and evening.

"The problem for Ottawa is we may see, as we end this kind of thing, there may be a little bit returning of the winds to bring some of that smoke. Don't be worried, you've already seen the worst of it….it may just cause the air quality to go up a little bit to be a warning, but the toxic levels that you have seen won't be there," Phillips said.

"My gosh, by Saturday but clearly Sunday we're going to see a change. We're going to have a more of a general kind of rain and then also a wind change; winds are going to come from the south."

Phillips says the smoke and haze over the next couple of days "won't be as dense, it won't be as toxic."

'More smoky skies'

Phillips says smoke from wildfires in northern Ontario and Quebec this week may be a preview of smoky skies through the summer.

"(Wildfires) tend to be July-August, not May and June and so my sense is that, get used to it. I think this will be the headline across the country this year, 'More smoky skies.' That's not a forecast because all we know is the conditions of weather from a temperature and precipitation point of view are going to be we're going to be vulnerable," Phillips said.

"My sense is we should be concerned about fires for a while."

Phillips notes that two years ago smoke from wildfires in northern Ontario moved into the Ottawa area for a short time.

Ottawa forecast

Overnight it will be cloudy with a small chance of a thunderstorm. Low 9 C.

Friday will be cloudy with a chance of showers. Hazy. High 18 C.

Saturday is expected to be a mix of sun and clouds with a high of 22 C.

Sunday is forecasted to be a mix of sun and clouds and a high of 22 C.  

With files from CTV News Ottawa's Jeremie Charron

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