By KATHY MCCORMACK
Canada is dealing with a series of intense wildfires that have spread from the western provinces to Quebec, with hundreds of forest fires burning. The smoke has traveled into the United States, resulting in a number of air quality alerts issued since May.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a poor air quality alert for New England, a day after parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota received a similar advisory. Last week, U.S. officials as far south as Maryland and Virginia reported being impacted by the wildfires.
Here’s a summary of what’s being evaluated and some suggested precautions:
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 EPA said hazy skies, reduced visibility and the odor of burning wood are likely, and that the smoke will linger for a few days in New England.
“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 the smoke usually has been aloft and doesn’t affect 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.
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.
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.