Billings, Mont. Smoke from wildfires in the western US and Canada is covering most of the continent, including thousands of miles off the east coast. And experts say the phenomenon is becoming more common as human-caused global warming stokes larger and more intense blazes.
Smoke pollution reached unhealthy levels this week in communities from Washington state to Washington DC
Get used to it, researchers say.
“This fire is going to burn all summer,” said Dan Jaffe, a wildfire smoke expert at the University of Washington. “In terms of poor air quality, everywhere in the country this year is going to be worse than average.”
Growing scientific research points to potential long-term health damage from breathing in fine particles of smoke. Authorities have scrambled to better protect people from harmful effects, but face challenges in communicating the risk to vulnerable communities and people living far away from burning forests.
Why is there so much smoke and how dangerous is it?
Decades of aggressive fires allowed a build-up of dead trees and other fuel in the forests. Now climate change is drying up the landscape, making it easier for fires to ignite and spread as more people move to areas affected by fires.
The number of unhealthy air quality days recorded in 2021 by pollution monitors nationwide has more than doubled in each of the past two years, according to data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency to the Associated Press. Officials said the likelihood of forest fires is increasing very high.
The amount of smoky wildfires directly burns how much land – more than 4,100 square miles (10,600 square kilometers) in the US and more than 4,800 square miles (12,500 square kilometers) in Canada so far in 2021. This is behind the 10-year average. for this time of year for both countries, but forecasters have warned that the situation could worsen as 85 percent of the West is facing severe drought.
There are hundreds of chemical compounds in wildfire smoke, and many can be harmful in large amounts. Health officials use the concentration of smoke particles in the air to assess the severity of a threat to the public.
In the years of bad fires over the past decade, hellfires across the West emit more than a million tons of particles annually, according to US Forest Service research.
Scientists link smoking exposure to long-term health problems including decreased lung function, a weakened immune system, and higher rates of the flu. In the short term, vulnerable people can be hospitalized and sometimes die from excessive smoke, according to physicians and public health officials.
When communities burn, the smoke can be especially dangerous. A 2018 fire in Paradise, California killed 85 people and engulfed 14,000 homes, leaving a thick blanket of Northern California for weeks. The smoke from burning homes and buildings contains more toxic plastics and other manufactured materials as well as chemicals stored in garages.
where are the fires?
About 80 major wildfires are now burning across the US, including 19 in Montana. the largest – The bootleg fire of eastern Oregon – has grown to 618 square miles (1,600 square kilometers). It is half the size of Rhode Island, yet less than 200 homes and other structures have been confirmed to have been destroyed as fires continue to burn in a sparsely populated area.
According to Canadian officials, more than 200 fires are burning in Manitoba and Ontario.
Weather patterns and fire intensity determine who gets exposed to smoke. Fierce fires generate so much heat that they can generate their own clouds that funnel smoke high into the atmosphere.
“It just spreads across the country and slowly, creating this haze layer in the sky,” said Miles Bliss, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Medford, Oregon.
Air pollution data shows the combined plume of Canada and the US passed through parts of the Midwest this week before settling at ground level in an area stretching from Ohio northeast to New England and the Carolinas in the south .
may affect health thousands of miles away from the flames Atmospheric scientist Jeff Pearce of Colorado State University said the smoke loses its fairytale smell, but remains a potential hazard even if it moves too far.
“It’s definitely unhealthy,” Pierce said of the wind along the East Coast in recent days. “If you have asthma or any type of respiratory condition, you may want to think about changing your plans if you are going out.”
According to a recent study by Colorado State University epidemiologists Sheryl Magzaman and Pierce, people who live close to fires are more likely to be prepared and take precautions, while those who live far away are unintentionally exposed.
How do I protect myself?
Listen to warnings about smoke and, if advised, avoid outdoor activities to reduce exposure. Keep doors and windows closed, and run an air filter to clean the air inside. Face masks can protect against breathing in the fumes. Like COVID-19, the most effective are N95 masks because they are designed to block the tiniest particles.
one online, interactive smoke map The launch by the EPA and the US Forest Service on a pilot basis last year has attracted millions of viewers. To reach people more quickly, officials are looking at using mobile phone push notifications, which will alert users when heavy smoke may spread in their communities, according to agency spokeswoman Anesta Jones.
Associated Press reporter Julie Walker contributed from New York.
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP