Jul. 24—The hot and dry summer season always brings some fire to the upper plains region, and where there's fire there's smoke.
The severity and hazardousness of wildfire smoke in North Dakota and Minnesota this year has been unprecedented, but Minnesota Pollution Control Agency meteorologist Matt Taraldsen doesn't believe this summer will be considered unusual for very long — all trends point to suffocating late summer seasons becoming a fairly regular occurrence.
"It's hard to say with any certainty, like, 'Next year will be a really bad fire season,'" said Taraldsen, who is based out of the MPCA's Detroit Lakes office. "There are a lot of variables we can't predict that go into that, but these types of conditions are something that we do expect to occur with more frequency in the summers."
As the U.S. continues to feel the effects of climate change, Taraldsen said it has become much more common for periods of heavy, intense rainfall followed by stretches of severe dryness and drought — periods of "have and have naughts," as he called it.
That's what's currently happening in the western U.S. and Canada, where a prolonged dry season has translated to a severe — and early — summer wildfire season that is not only impacting the west, but has impacts reaching much of the rest of the country.
In southern Oregon, the 530-square mile Bootleg Fire has grown so severe, it is now creating its own weather with high winds and lightning. And earlier this week, New York City was blanketed in the smokey haze that originated from the wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada.
Jacob Spender, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, said the best thing people can do as they learn to coexist with wildfire smoke is familiarize themselves with the Air Quality Index, a measurement of levels of pollution in the air. The AQI, which can be found AirNow.com, ranges from a green "good" level to a maroon "hazardous" level, which triggers an emergency health warning that all individuals could be affected by the air quality.
A health alert was issued for northwest Minnesota earlier this week when the air quality passed the threshold for the purple "very unhealthy" level.
At yellow or orange levels, Taraldsen said they recommend people in sensitive groups — such as children and older adults, and people with heart or breathing problems such asthma or high blood pressure — take precautions to avoid prolonged exposure or heavy exertion outdoors. Most members of the general public can continue to go about their days as normal at those levels.
Once the air quality reaches red "unhealthy" levels, even healthy members of the general public might notice the smoke's impacts, which could include symptoms such as difficulty breathing, headaches, chest pains, irritated throat or sinuses or a running nose.
"At the red 'unhealthy' level, everybody should be avoiding going from runs during the afternoon and things like that when the smoke is really bad, and everyone can be impacted," Taraldsen said. "And then once you get to that purple, that 'very unhealthy,' that's when people should really consider things like masks, maybe, or avoiding going outdoors for any long durations."
Taraldsen said they generally only advise masks at the highest levels of pollution, which tend to only occur for a few hours at a time. Cloth masks, which are effective at stopping droplets that spread COVID-19, are less effective at stopping the tiny harmful particles of smoke that can be inhaled. For those who do want to wear masks to protect themselves against the smoke, Taraldsen recommended N-95 masks.
The good news, Taraldsen said, is that because the fires are so far away, it's easy to forecast smoky conditions well in advance. As people prepare for this summer and future summers, he suggested signing up for air quality alerts.
"It's really just about being more thoughtful about what's going on with with air quality, what's going on with the forecast, and how you can adjust your day to set the conditions that are expected," he said.