Western wildfires take a hit on regional air quality

Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 6:28 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The wildfires in the western United States and central Canada may seem far away, but winds are blowing smoke from the blazes across our region this week.

On Friday it was easy to see the Adirondacks standing tall across Lake Champlain, but it was a different story Tuesday, with a haze across the horizon. The smoggy air didn’t go unnoticed.

Patty Blondin of Middlesex woke Tuesday to her fire and carbon monoxide alarm blaring on and off. She checked the usual issues -- low batteries, expired device, leaking gas, but all seemed to be in order. “Then, I look out the window and I’m like, wow it looks really bad out,” Blondin said. She logged onto her computer and found the culprit. “Air quality alert -- what’s that?”

It turns out the detector wasn’t defective. It was doing its job, warning Blondin smoke was in the air -- just not from a fire burning in her home -- from blazes thousands of miles away.

“What happened on Tuesday was particularly unprecedented because Vermont’s seen wildfire smoke from upwind areas before, but generally that’s been fires less than 200 miles, for example in Quebec,” said Bennet Leon with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Air Quality and Climate Division.

He says the haze covering Vermont and Northern New York Tuesday was obvious, since winds were blowing smoke from both the wildfires to the north and those out west, across the continent and towards the Northeast.

The EPA says healthy, unpolluted air should clock in at no more than 35 micrograms of particles per cubic meter. Tuesday’s hourly readings reached as high as 54. Readings on a clear day in Vermont are typically as low as two to four.

While these annual wildfires aren’t new, the season is increasing in severity every year. This year alone, more than 80 wildfires in 13 states have burned more than a million acres of forest. “If you believe certain aspects of climate change and understand that certain trends and cycles do come and go, if we do see a higher number of western wildfires across southern Canada, it would be natural to assume we’d see more of these types of events every year. That’s really on the level of unpredictability at this point,” said John Goff with the National Weather Service Burlington.

He says he can’t say for sure if poor air quality alerts will happen frequently here, but notes the last most notable occurrence was on Memorial Day 2010, when conditions were far worse.

Blondin says she’s concerned for the climate based on observations from her own backyard over the past two decades. “I don’t have the fireflies like I used to. I have a lot less hummingbirds coming here,” she said.

You can sign up for air quality alerts from forecasters predicting pollution levels a day ahead.

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