By Jessika Harkay, Hartford Courant, July 27, 2021
For officials in the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, meteorologists and physicians, the severity of the smoke traveling over Connecticut from Western wildfires is something they’ve never seen before.
“There’s one time in my career when I can say I’ve seen it worse and that’s when the fires were much closer though, they were in Quebec, Canada, and they were coming from the north to the south,” said Paul Farrell, a director in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Air Management. “I would say that was probably in the early 2000s and that’s where you had that almost orange looking sun in the middle of the day.”
Starting last week, residents across the state were noticing a haze that was taking over the sky. Officials later confirmed that smoke was traveling from the West Coast, including Oregon and Western Canada, and making its way to the East Coast. At midday Tuesday, DEEP issued an air quality alert, warning that all of the state, except for Litchfield County, was experiencing unhealthy air conditions.
“In the atmosphere, air moves from West to East, so we have essentially rivers of air that crossed the country, and as the smoke rises up into the atmosphere, it can be transported by these atmospheric winds aloft,” Torry Gaucher, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, explained.
What’s different this year, compared to prior years, is that the smoke, which typically is elevated a few thousand feet, is no longer staying aloft, but rather coming down from the upper levels of the atmosphere and into what residents are breathing, Farrell added.
Typically, air quality is impacted from ozone levels, including precursor pollutants from cars, trucks and factories which oxidize. But this time what’s creating moderate to severe unhealthy air quality alerts is the elevated level of particulate matter in the air. Particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter — or PM2.5 — is considered very unhealthy when inhaled.
Healthy levels of PM2.5 are typically between 0 to 50, but parts of the state within in the last 24 hours have seen figures in the moderate to unhealthy levels, including Torrington which reported 178 PM2.5 Monday evening.
“Going into this week, we predicted that levels would be good, but we did not take into account the smoke from the west wildfires,” Farrell said. ““Our monitors picked up elevated levels, beginning very early the morning of the 26th, and they spiked midday [Monday] and then they started to come down little by little slowly. Now they dropped and plateaued, then dropped again, to levels where we still feel that they can impact public health so we issued another air quality alert.”
As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, much of the state was in moderate air quality levels between 58 to 86 PM2.5, with Madison and Stafford reporting levels under 50. The levels are expected to continue to drop Wednesday into healthy figures, but it may not last for long before higher levels of particulate matter travel back to Connecticut.
“Since those fires are still ongoing across the west, we’ll likely see some type of resurgence later on in the week,” Gaucher said. “It’s probably going to be similar to what we’re seeing [Tuesday], probably not as bad as what we saw [Monday]. But, as of right now, the forecast model shows we’ll have some blue skies … [with] most of the smoke pushed down to the far south, then likely a resurgence later on this week [around] Thursday.”
And it’s possible that smoky summers may become the new reality.
“I think there’s a clear link to climate change,” Farrell said. “What we’re seeing in areas where there’s less rainfall, getting even less rainfall, is forests drying out which makes them susceptible to all sorts of pests, and you see large trees die off, which creates a lot of fuel on the ground that feeds the fires when they do start. So, we are seeing more wildfires out West, and the more wildfires you see, the more chance and opportunity there is for that smoke to make its way from the West Coast to the East Coast.”
The elevated PM2.5 levels also create a public health concern, especially for those who suffer from asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
“ER visits go up, hospitalizations go up, people calling in for prednisone, for increasing treatment, but there’s also if you look at these small particulates they are also associated with heart attacks. … They are so small they are absorbed into the bloodstream and they can actually create systemic inflammation,” Dr. Sam Pope, a pulmonologist at Hartford Healthcare, said.
Similar to Farrell, Pope said he doesn’t recall seeing the air quality index at such unhealthy levels.
“These are particles that get into our lungs and are associated with more asthma exacerbations and COPD exacerbations and they were crazy high this morning [around 8 a.m.] … which is really odd because usually when people worry about air quality, they tend to go outside in the early morning or in the evening,” Pope said. “This is certainly something I have not seen, not quite like this over the last few summers anyway.”
He advised residents to keep an eye out for shortness of breath, wheezing, tightness of the chest and coughing when outdoors and if the symptoms persist indoors, to seek medical attention.
Connecticut residents can also track air quality around the state by subscribing to DEEP’s Air Quality Information Listserv by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with an empty subject line and “Subscribe DEEP_AirQualityInfo First Name, Last Name” in the body text.