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Wildfire smoke blankets Milwaukee, air quality among worst in the world

 Hazy sky in Milwaukee
Lina Tran
The hazy view from Milwaukee's Hoan Bridge on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 27, 2023.

Update: On Thursday, the DNR extended the air quality advisory through noon on Friday, June 30. Check the air quality near you here.

A gray, soupy haze descended on Milwaukee, as a plume of smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed much of the Upper Midwest. On Tuesday, Milwaukee’s Air Quality Index was in the purple, meaning the air was “very unhealthy” for all members of the public.

“Today would normally be looked at as a beautiful day to go outside,” read a forecast from the National Weather Service Milwaukee office. “However, smoke is a major concern.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued a statewide air quality advisory that expires at noon on Thursday. The most significant air quality and health impacts were expected between noon on Tuesday and noon on Wednesday.

“In fact, Milwaukee is currently experiencing some of the highest levels of air pollution, not just in the U.S., but across the globe,” Craig Czarnecki, the DNR’s Air Program public information specialist, said in a briefing Tuesday afternoon.

State and city officials urged all residents to stay indoors, but especially sensitive groups like older adults, children, pregnant people and those with heart or lung disease. If it's necessary to go outside, they recommended wearing an N95 mask.

The wildfire smoke contains fine particles — also known as PM2.5 — that can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. That can cause a wide range of negative health impacts, including coughing, difficulty breathing and worsening asthma symptoms.

“Nobody benefits from breathing in these levels of smoke,” said Tracey Holloway, an air quality expert and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies.

Extended conversation with air quality expert Tracey Holloway.

Ron Schneider, the DNR’s cooperative fire specialist, said the wildfires raging through Canada’s forests are unusual for how intense and how early they are. Usually, the wildfire season starts in July.

“It is an above-average year and an early year for forest fires in Canada,” he said. “They’re definitely facing the high fire danger and the drought situation, just like we are here in the Midwest.”

Czarnecki noted that the DNR has issued nine PM2.5 air quality advisories this year in response to the Canada fires. Before this “pretty unprecedented spring,” the agency had not issued such an advisory since 2011.

 Hazy American Family Field
Michelle Maternowski
Haze coats American Family Field in Milwaukee on Tuesday, June 27, 2023.

How long the current haze of smoke persists will depend on shifts in the weather. Northerly winds are sending the pollution thousands of miles down to the Midwest and beyond. But it may be months before the fires are extinguished, said Schneider, who had consulted agency partners in Manitoba and Ontario before the briefing.

“A lot of these fires that are burning are in areas where they either can't extinguish the fires, or they're in such remote areas, or they just don't have the staff,” Schneider said. “They brought in firefighters from France, from Italy, Australia, Mexico.”

Climate change is creating hotter, drier conditions that fuel wildfires like this.

“This idea that summers will get longer, fire conditions will be more frequent, fires will get bigger and smoke will become more widespread — this is something that scientists have been predicting for decades associated with climate change,” said Holloway, the UW-Madison air quality professor, who leads a NASA science team that uses satellite data to inform public health decision-making.

“We have for a long time talked about climate change as if it’s the future,” she said. “It’s not the future anymore.”

The current bout of smoke is an unusual event. But, eventually, it won’t be that unusual anymore. It’ll just be a part of summer. That’s why communities should prepare, Holloway said.

“Building out resources, knowledge, capabilities, to help people live healthier lives — even when we are experiencing smoke,” she said. “Having access to spaces and tools and equitable housing that ensures that they have a clean air retreat to go to when it’s bad outside.”

In Madison, the Wisconsin State Capitol is barely visible behind the fog over Lake Monona.
Wisconsin DNR
In Madison, the Wisconsin State Capitol is barely visible behind the fog over Lake Monona.

Residents were told to stay indoors, with the A/C on and doors and windows closed. But many in Milwaukee lack air-conditioning. Indoor air quality can also be poor, particularly for communities of color living in older homes — a legacy of redlining.

Holloway noted that cities may ensure safe conditions during air quality advisories with community cooling centers and public libraries that are open to the public. At the same time, the wildfire smoke is a reminder to think about the long-term.

“How can we turn the corner on climate so that we don’t expect these hot, summer smoky days to get worse and worse and worse, for our own lives and our kids’ lives and our grandkids’ lives?” she said.

That means adopting climate solutions like electrifying cars and appliances, and transitioning to sources of clean energy. Holloway said we have an opportunity both to protect our health now — and try to make smoke events less frequent in the future.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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