WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Haze from western wildfires hampers visibility in NC, makes breathing difficult for some

Posted July 20, 2021 2:17 p.m. EDT
Updated July 22, 2021 6:19 p.m. EDT

— Do you notice a haze to the sky or perhaps smell a little bit of smoke in the air outside? Believe it or not, smoke from wildfires over the western part of the United States and even Canada is traveling all the way across the country and has made it to North Carolina.

The smoke prompted a Code Orange alert for air quality over nearly all of North Carolina on Thursday.

It blocked the sun so much that the WRAL solar farm in Garner put out about 10% less power Thursday than on the same day last week.

The alert means the environment outside could be unhealthy for sensitive groups and people with existing conditions. Young children, the elderly and those with heart and lung disease and people exercising are encouraged to limit time outdoors.

“It’s a rare day to have a Code Orange day in North Carolina, said Taylor Hartsfield, regional office supervisor at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

The last one linked to smoke or "fine particulate matter," as it is described by DEQ, came in 2017.

DEQ has two air quality monitoring stations across the state that can monitor the air, minute-by-minute, for smoke. One is located at East Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh.

The state monitors the air quality and releases the next day's forecast each day at 3 p.m.

There are currently 80 large wildfires spanning 13 states out west. The largest fire is the Bootleg Fire in Oregon, burning more than 350,000 acres so far and only 30% contained.

Current fires

The fire season has grown longer and more extreme in recent years. As the globe continues to warm and our dry spells become more extreme out west, this trend is likely to continue. Sixty-four percent of the western United States is currently experiencing an extreme drought.

Twenty-eight percent of the western U.S. is in an exceptional drought.

Increased fire risk

Normally, western wildfires are a news story to us and don't have any major impacts on North Carolina, but our current jetstream pattern is sending some of the smoke from those fires to our part of the country.

"The air quality right now is smoky," said state meteorologist Elliot Tardif. "You can smell it and see the haze. This type of thing doesn't happen here often."

Tardiff said some people could experience wheezing, coughing or sneezing.

Those who are sensitive to particle pollution – anyone with underlying respiratory disease such as COPD or asthma – might want to reduce the amount of time spent outdoors through Friday.

"Particles in the air have been associated with increased acute cardiovascular events – stroke, heart attacks, congestive heart failure," said Dr. David Peden, medical director of the Center for Environmental Medicine.

"This is not the day to forget your heart medicine. This is not the day to skip using your asthma inhaler. Anything you can do, in general terms, to keep yourself healthy will help minimize or mitigate the impact of the air pollution."

Peden recommended an N-95 mask for those with underlying conditions who need to spend time outdoors.

"They might be less comfortable, you may not like them, they may be socially clumsy. But, In terms of keeping bad stuff out of your lungs, the N-95 will certainly do that for you," he said.

For amateur photographer Bill Witbeck, the haze is a hassle, a hindrance to his attempt to capture trains coming at going at Raleigh's Union Station.

He was visiting Raleigh from Williamsburg, Va., but said some of his images would need to be touched up in editing.

"You take the picture because you know you want the subject material no matter what the weather conditions," he said. "A haze filter on PhotoShop takes out a lot."

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