Manitoba fires in Canada could degrade Vermont air quality all summer

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The mist in the air softens the view of Mt. Mansfield as seen from Jericho on Tuesday July 27, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

Manitoba, Canada may be nearly 1,500 miles from Vermont, but smoke from a series of fires is degrading air quality statewide, posing some number of health risks for Vermonters.

“Poor air quality can cause problems for people with respiratory problems and chronic illnesses, so it is important that people pay attention to what is going on,” said Ben Truman, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health. Vermont Health. “If there are air quality alerts, people should stay indoors and close the windows if it is not too hot.”

A combination of weather conditions have brought haze, smoke and poor air quality to New England, while states closer to the source of the smoke – like Minnesota and Michigan – remain relatively clear .

Dr Dan Jaffe, professor of physical sciences at the University of Washington, says a combination of wind regimes, the unusually large size of the fires, and the Vermont mountains that trap smoke in the valleys have combined to provide a poor air quality in the state.

Almost 5 million acres of forest are burned across Canada, including only 2 million acres in Manitoba. The province borders the US states of North Dakota and Minnesota.

“You couldn’t be a better bullseye; the winds are coming straight from Manitoba to Vermont, ”Jaffe said. “The White Mountains and the Green Mountains are probably making the situation worse, too. ”

Forest fires always send smoke into the atmosphere, but because these fires are so large, the smoke reaches the boundary layer – the part of the Earth’s atmosphere between 3,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level. When the smoke reaches the boundary layer, the jet stream – a wind pattern prevalent in North America – carries this smoke east.

Through a series of complex weather processes, the smoke particles then descend below the boundary layer under certain conditions. Mountain ranges often help bring smoke down to ground level.

“It is not unusual for the smoke to pass over your head and not affect the air quality – it is very common – and I suspect that is what happens in some places between Vermont and smoke, ”Jaffe said.

So will Vermont see smoke every summer from the raging wildfires that have become common in our west? Jaffe thinks it’s unlikely.

“This is a little unusual alignment of the huge fires in Manitoba and the winds that just bring it to you,” he said. While climate change will cause more fires in the western United States and Canada in the years to come, he said, Vermont itself is unlikely to have more wildfires. than usual, and smoke will develop when the winds and large fires line up – as they have been this summer.

Jaffe thinks Vermonters should come to terms with poor air quality in the coming months.

“For the rest of the summer, there’s a good chance Vermont will see smoke coming on and off, just because these fires in Manitoba are so big they won’t get under control. There is nothing that is going to put out these fires until we have rain in the fall, ”he said.

An important health consideration for Vermonters is the impact of smoke particles from distant fires. Sheryl Magzamen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University who studies the health effects of smoke from wildfires, said that as smoke particles age, their chemical makeup changes. This is something that air quality indices do not take into account. Typically, these indices measure the mass of smoke in a unit of air. However, air that contains older smoke particles could be more harmful than the same concentration of younger smoke particles.

“We hypothesize that the older smoke particles are actually more harmful to breathe,” Magzamen said.

Another problem is that in places like Vermont where no fire actually burns, sometimes people are not aware that the air quality is bad because they cannot smell or see a fire.

Being aware of smoke conditions is an important step in staying healthy during fire season, Jaffe said.

“I’m pretty active and I’m outside a lot,” said Jaffe, who lives in Seattle, where the summer months often bring smoke, “but when we smoke and hit an AQI of around 100, I don’t go out and cycle anymore.It’s not a good idea for me to do that.

Magzamen agreed, “It’s pretty normal to check the weather before you go out and plan your day, so we try to get people to check the air quality as well.

When air quality is poor due to smoke from forest fires, it is common to see an increase in emergency room visits and hospitalizations related to asthma, as well as other respiratory illnesses. It can be dangerous for high-risk populations to stay outdoors for long periods of time on days when the air quality is poor.

Magzamen said babies who are in utero during wildfire season generally weigh less than babies who are not exposed to smoke from wildfires in utero.

“If you’re outside for more than an hour when the AQI is above 100, I recommend wearing an N95 mask,” Jaffe said.

Magzamen said communities should provide safe places for people to breathe clean air during prolonged periods of poor air quality. She encouraged people living in affected areas to watch their neighbors and keep asthma and other respiratory medications nearby.

“A lot of the lessons we learn during heat waves also apply during smoke,” Magzamen said.

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