Canadian wildfires diminish air quality in Upper Valley

In this GOES-16 GeoColor satellite image taken Monday, June 5, 2023 at 7 p.m. EDT and provided by CIRA/NOAA, smoke from wildfires burning in Quebec, Canada, top center, drifts southward. (CIRA/NOAA via AP)

In this GOES-16 GeoColor satellite image taken Monday, June 5, 2023 at 7 p.m. EDT and provided by CIRA/NOAA, smoke from wildfires burning in Quebec, Canada, top center, drifts southward. (CIRA/NOAA via AP) CIRA/NOAA via AP

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-07-2023 12:26 PM

LEBANON — As tracts of forest are charred by historic wildfires in eastern Canada, smoke from the blazes has officials from New Hampshire and Vermont warning of health impacts in the Upper Valley through Wednesday and perhaps intermittently throughout the summer.

The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services is recommending that sensitive groups spend limited time outdoors through Wednesday, with wind patterns drawing smoke down from more than 100 wildfires burning around Quebec.

Sensitive groups include children, older adults, anyone with lung ailments such as asthma and those active outdoors, including outdoor workers. “Even healthy individuals” could experience mild health effects and should consider limiting outdoor activity, a news release from the NHDES said.

“Watch for symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath,” a release from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation reads. “These are signs to take it easy or move indoors.”

Air quality is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups when the Air Quality Index is above 100. Tuesday mid-day, levels were at 104 in Lebanon and 145 in Norwich, according to federally monitored AirNow.gov.

The story of long-distance cause and health effect is becoming increasingly common as climate change exacerbates the hot, dry conditions that prime areas for wildfire. Early forecasts for the Norwich area predict that drought is “likely” to develop over the month of June, according to Drought.gov.

But as this week’s air quality alerts suggest, even far-flung drought can impact Upper Valley residents.

Wildfire smoke contains tiny particulate matter known as PM2.5, a micro-pollutant as dangerous as it is small. When inhaled, it can travel deep into lung tissue and enter the bloodstream.

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The particle air pollution is carried by wind into New England from Canada, where record-setting blazes burned more than 6.5 million acres in the month of May alone, according to the European Union’s atmosphere monitoring service.

“We’ve seen it start to clear up in northern Vermont, but central and southern Vermont still have quite a bit of smoke,” said Bennett Leon, a member of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s air quality and climate division, on Tuesday. “We’re predicting tomorrow to be moderate for particle pollution, so a lot cleaner than it was today.”

But the wildfires up north will likely continue to burn as Quebec, strapped for resources, struggles to control them.

Canada has enlisted the help of firefighting squads from across the world, including from France and New Zealand. Persistent drought has led the Canadian government to issue a “well above normal” wildfire severity forecast for much of the country through August.

“The firefighters are prioritizing the wildfires that are risking communities and letting others burn that might in more remote areas,” Leon said. “Tomorrow we’ll be looking at conditions for Thursday to see whether things could change again.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.