Unhealthy air hangs over eastern US as smoke from west coast fires spreads


Smoke and ash from massive wildfires in the American West clouded the sky, triggering air quality warnings on parts of the East Coast on Wednesday as the effects of the fires were felt 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers) away.

Strong winds blew smoke from eastern California, Oregon, Montana and other states all the way across the continent. Haze hovered over New York City, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The nation’s largest wildfire, Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, grew to 1,601 square miles, just over half of Rhode Island. There were also fires on both sides of the Sierra Nevada in California and in Washington state and other parts of the West.

The smoke billowing toward the East Coast was reminiscent of last fall, when large fires in Oregon’s worst wildfire season in recent memory choked local air with pea-soup smoke, but also affected air quality several thousand miles away. Seattle and Portland have been largely spared the dirty air so far this year.

People in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere with heart disease, asthma and other health conditions were told to avoid the outdoors. Air quality warnings for parts of the region were in effect through Thursday.

“One of the things that makes this event so remarkable is that the smoke is affecting such a large part of the U.S.,” said Jesse Berman, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and an expert on the subject. of air quality. . “Not only do you see localized and maybe upstate New York being affected, but you see a lot of states along the East Coast that are affected.”

David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the smoke from wildfires usually thins by the time it reaches the East Coast, but this summer it’s “still quite thick.”

In California, a wildfire that burned completely unattended south of Lake Tahoe crossed the state line into Nevada. New voluntary evacuation orders were issued for parts of Douglas County, Nevada.

The Tamarack Fire, started by lightning in Alpine County, California, has now burned more than 68 square miles (176 square kilometers). Authorities say more than 1,200 firefighters are fighting the blaze, which has destroyed at least 10 buildings.

Meanwhile, Oregon on Wednesday banned all campfires on state-owned land and state campgrounds east of Interstate 5, the main highway widely regarded as the dividing line between the wet western part of the state and the dry eastern half.

The arrangement includes designated fire rings at campsites, as well as candles and tiki torches. Propane grills are still allowed, but the state still urged campers to pack food that doesn’t require heating or cooking.

The lightning-caused Oregon fire has devastated the sparsely populated southern portion of the state, spreading up to 4 miles a day, propelled by gusty winds and critically dry weather that has turned trees and undergrowth into a tinderbox.

Fire crews have had to retreat from the flames for 10 consecutive days as fireballs leap from treetop to treetop, trees explode, embers fly in front of the fire to start new fires, and in some cases the heat of the inferno creates its own weather of varying winds and winds. dry lightning. Monstrous clouds of smoke and ash rose up to 10 kilometers into the sky and are visible for more than 100 air miles (161 kilometers).

Oregon authorities said lower winds and temperatures allowed crews to improve firing lines, and they hoped to make more progress on Wednesday. The fire was approaching an old fire area on the active southeast flank, raising hopes it would not spread as widely.

About a third of the fire, which is being fought by more than 2,200 people, is under control. It was within a few hundred acres to become Oregon’s third largest wildfire in modern history.

At least 2,000 homes have been evacuated at some point during the fire and another 5,000 are under threat. At least 70 houses and more than 100 outbuildings burned down, but no one is known to have died.

Extremely dry conditions and recent heat waves linked to climate change have made wildfires more difficult to fight. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years and will make the weather more extreme and make wildfires more frequent and destructive.

While Berman is hopeful the smoke will only last for a few days, he said we may see more of it as a result of climate change.

“We fully expect that you’ll see more situations where smoke, from fires further away, will travel long distances and hit people in other parts of the country,” Berman said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if these events happen more often in the future.”