MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Smoke from wildfires in Canada has reached the Mid-South, causing potentially hazardous air quality conditions.
“So these wildfires are coming from Canada, more specifically Quebec, and the jet stream come out of the north is pushing all of that smoke and haze into the Mid-South,” said WREG meteorologist Tim Simpson.
Smoke from Canada’s wildfires has been moving into the United States since last month. The most recent fires near Quebec have been burning for at least several days.
The effects of hundreds of wildfires burning across the western provinces to Quebec could be felt as far away as New York City and New England, blotting out skylines and irritating throats.
U.S. authorities issued air quality alerts. Hazy conditions and smoke from the wildfires were reported across the Great Lakes region from Cleveland to Buffalo.
It’s not too bad here yet, but the health department says the air quality is poor. Dr. Andrew Holt with Mid-South Pulmonary Specialists says people with respiratory issues should beware.
“For some people that have serious, debilitating lung disease, it could be devastating. So it’s important that we be mindful that the air quality could affect their lung function,” Holt said.
Shelby County did issue a code orange earlier in the day Wednesday, meaning the air quality was poor, which has since expired. But depending on weather conditions, it could be reissued Thursday.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said hazy skies, reduced visibility and the odor of burning wood are likely, and that the smoke will linger for a few days in northern states.
“It’s not unusual for us to get fire smoke in our area. It’s very typical in terms of northwest Canada,” said Darren Austin, a meteorologist and senior air quality specialist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. But, usually, the smoke has been aloft and hasn’t affected people’s health, he said.
The Quebec-area fires are big and relatively close, about 500 to 600 miles (roughly 800 to 970 kilometers) away from Rhode Island. And they followed wildfires in Nova Scotia, which resulted in a short-lived air quality alert on May 30, Austin said.
Jay Engle, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Upton, Long Island, said the wind trajectory that allowed smoke and hazy conditions to be seen in the New York City area could continue for the next few days. Of course, he said, the main driver of conditions is the fires themselves. If they diminish, the haze would too.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CONCERN?
Air quality alerts are triggered by a number of factors, including the detection of fine-particle pollution — known as “PM 2.5” — which can irritate the lungs.
“We have defenses in our upper airway to trap larger particles and prevent them from getting down into the lungs. These are sort of the right size to get past those defenses,” said Dr. David Hill, a pulmonologist in Waterbury, Connecticut, and a member of the American Lung Association’s National Board of Directors. “When those particles get down into the respiratory space, they cause the body to have an inflammatory reaction to them.”
Trent Ford, the state climatologist in Illinois, said the atmospheric conditions in the upper Midwest creating dry, warm weather made it possible for small particulates to travel hundreds of miles from the Canadian wildfires and linger for days.
“It’s a good example of how complex the climate system is but also how connected it is,” Ford said.
WHO SHOULD BE CAREFUL?
Exposure to elevated fine particle pollution levels can affect the lungs and heart.
The air quality alerts caution “sensitive groups,” a big category that includes children, older adults, and people with lung diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Kids, who often are encouraged to go out and play, “are more susceptible to smoke for a number of reasons,” said Laura Kate Bender, the lung association’s National Assistant Vice President, healthy air. “Their lungs are still developing, they breathe in more air per unit of body weight.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR NOW?
Dr. Andrew Holt urges people to stay inside if possible and wear a mask if necessary when outside. But so far, he says he hasn’t seen any patients come in because of the diminished air quality this week.
It’s a good time to put off that yard work and outdoor exercise. If you go out, consider wearing an N95 mask to reduce your exposure to pollutants.
Stay inside, keeping your doors, windows and fireplaces shut. It’s recommended that you run the air conditioning on a recirculation setting.