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Wisconsin could see more wildfire smoke this summer. How has the state prepared?

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

In May, smoke from Canadian wildfires once again drifted into Midwestern skies. Some of it came from zombie fires, which started last year and smoldered through the winter under the snowpack.

This smoke arrived almost exactly a year after the first plumes of smoke did last year. Craig Czarnecki, the outreach coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s air management program, recalled thinking, “Here we go again.”

The DNR issued an air quality advisory on May 12, saying the air was unhealthy for sensitive groups across the northern two-thirds of the state, such as children, the elderly, pregnant people and those with heart or lung disease. Wildfire smoke carries particle pollution — known as PM2.5 — so tiny it can penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream. That can irritate your respiratory system, causing coughing, wheezing or short breath. Long-term exposure is linked to heart attacks, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma and premature death.

Climate change is driving more wildfires; according to one analysis, climate change more than doubled the chance of conditions that led to last year's record-smashing season. In Milwaukee, last year's haze momentarily led to some of the highest levels of air pollution worldwide. Wisconsin could see more alerts like this in the coming months as another wildfire season progresses. A report from the National Interagency Fire Center forecasts high fire risk in western and central Canada this summer, driven by warm temperatures and persistent drought.

It’s too soon to tell just how bad the season will be, Czarnecki said, adding that DNR models typically allow for a roughly 48-hour forecast. Canada is experiencing wildfires right now, though they’re not as numerous or intense as they were this time last year. And whether that smoke reaches Wisconsin also depends on larger weather patterns.

“There is a chance for those fires to spread and get very large and produce more smoke, which increases the chance of that smoke traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to us,” he said. “Long story short, I guess it’s too early to tell.”

After last year, the department made some adjustments and feels prepared for more summer smoke. They got lots of practice rapidly sending out advisories. They created a web page solely dedicated to wildfire smoke, with tools to stay up-to-date and information on precautions that residents can take. And they instituted new protocols. Like the filters on the agency’s air monitors — they used to get changed every 90 days.

“But then during wildfire season last year specifically, they were replacing those every 30 days,” Czarnecki said. “Because those filters were getting so gunked up.”

So the DNR decided from now on, filters will get swapped monthly during wildfire season, when they’re working overtime.

In Madison, the Wisconsin State Capitol is barely visible behind the fog over Lake Monona.
Wisconsin DNR
In late June 2023, the Wisconsin State Capitol was barely visible behind the wildfire smoke over Lake Monona.

Last summer also brought together state agencies like the DNR, the Department of Health Services, the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Public Instruction. The goal for the partnership was to align their messaging and health recommendations. And set up lines of communication so that when there are unhealthy air events, they get the word out quickly.

The event in May, when school was still in session, showed there are still some kinks to work out. The DNR’s advisory came over the weekend. According to Jennifer Rosen Heinz, a DPI communications specialist, the agency didn’t realize what was going on until after school started on Monday.

“It was definitely a moment where you kind of went, ‘Oh gosh, oh, OK, this already came,’” she said.

“We’re still really in the beginning stages of setting the communication into place,” continued Rosen Heinz, who has been closely involved with the multi-agency partnership. “We now have some boilerplate emails that will go out depending on what the level is. Part of that is we’ve been waiting to finalize, with our partners at DHS, what the recommendations are. Some of that can be real technical. And we need to give guidance to our schools that’s really practical.”

The incident offers an example of the many ways our changing climate is bringing challenges like air quality, or extreme heat, into the classroom, pushing institutions like DPI to design protocols where little guidance has existed before.

In April, DPI published a school-friendly air quality index poster that the agency plans to distribute, as part of a new initiative to communicate about air quality events.
Wisconsin DPI
In April, DPI published a school-friendly air quality index poster that the agency plans to distribute, as part of a new initiative to communicate about air quality events.

In April, DPI announced a new initiative to communicate with education professionals. When the agency receives 24-hour notice from the DNR on a predicted air quality event, it will blast emails to listservs for principals, school nurses, gym coaches and social workers, as well as coordinators of the summer lunch program, which often takes place outdoors.

Rosen Heinz said in putting together that list, the team considered where adults in the school system can help make decisions around air quality and students’ health.

“All of us wish there were fewer wildfires,” she said. “But what we can do is give people information to help them make good decisions.”

For those of us outside the classroom, experts say it’s a good idea to get familiar with the air quality index, particularly if you have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or chronic lung disease associated with cigarette smoking.

People with those conditions "are very sensitive and very susceptible to these adverse effects and it makes things worse," said Dr. Randolph Lipchik, a pulmonary medicine professor at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin. "We see a rise in ER visits, hospitalizations, and actually an increase in cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke."

Paying attention to the air quality index can give you an idea of when to take precautions, such as staying indoors, using indoor air filters or donning a well-fitting N95 mask if you go outside. You can sign up for air quality alerts with the DNR and check the air quality index on AirNow.gov.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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