wildfire

This smoke map, provided by the Canadian Parks Agency, shows the rough extent and intensity of smoke cover generated by the Alberta wildfires and other smaller fires throughout the northern U.S. and Canada.

If you smell wood smoke or see haze in the sky the next few days, it may not be from your neighbor’s cookout. It might be from a wildfire in Canada.

Earlier in May, wildfire officials in Canada’s central Alberta province noticed the first signs of a blaze moving through the province’s northern forests.

“Some of the fires kicking up smoke right now have been burning since May 12,” Derek Gagnon, a Provincial Information Officer for the Alberta Wildfire Center, said. “One of the biggest fires has been burning since May 18.”

By Thursday, May 30, fires had enveloped large areas of those local forests, with the biggest blaze spreading over 230,000 hectares — more than 888 square miles. “That easily puts it in the top ten [largest fires] of Alberta’s recorded history,” Gagnon said.

Smoke generated by the fires is currently spreading throughout much of the northern half of North America. According to a smoke map provided by the Canadian Parks Agency, the central Canadian provinces and Midwestern American states are receiving the heaviest blanket of smoke, but some plumes will spread as far east as Maine and Nova Scotia and as far west as the Yukon and Alaska. In Alberta, where the smoke is thickest, Gagnon said there was growing public concern.

“It’s pretty dark here in Edmonton, where I’m based,” Gagnon said on Thursday, May 30, just after 3:45 p.m. “That’s caused some worry.”

Wood smoke is a form of particulate matter whose individual particles are generally smaller than 2.5 micrometers, meaning they remain airborne longer than larger particles. Smoke levels are measured with the units “μg/m3,” or micrograms per cubed meter. High ambient smoke levels can lower visibility and cause a number of health issues, including stinging eyes or difficulty breathing. The latter is especially dangerous for those with asthma or other respiratory problems.

In parts of Alberta, smoke levels on Thursday far exceeded 250μg/m3, which the American Environmental Protection Agency regards as “hazardous.” In such conditions, everyone is urged to avoid any outdoor exertion; people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children are advised remain indoors.

Thankfully, the smoke the capital area receives will be comparatively light. On Thursday, the Canadian smoke map predicted that central South Dakota would receive at most between 60 and 250μg/m3. Even at the highest possible concentrations, this is still less dangerous than what is being experienced in central Canada.

Meteorologist Aaron Dye of the National Weather Service at Aberdeen said that the smoke’s elevation would also help the capital area avoid any danger.

“The thicker parts [of the smoke] are over us right now,” Dye said around 2:30 p.m. on Thursday. “So long as it stays up high, it shouldn’t be much of an issue… you may smell it or it could get hazy, but that’s about it”

Dye explained the smoke particles were light enough that, by the time they reached South Dakota, the wind had carried them into the upper levels of the atmosphere. He said he expected the thickest layers of smoke to pass southeast by the weekend, so long as the fires in Alberta didn’t get worse.

“It would only get thicker if the fire spreads,” Dye said.

That may be a possibility. Gagnon said that forest fires were relatively common in Alberta, especially in May when the snow cover melts and exposes the dead, dry grass underneath. Due to dry spring conditions, Gagnon said the fires would likely continue for some time.

“Once the region gets rain, that’s when we’ll be able to contain these fires,” Gagnon said.

So it’s possible more smoke and haze is headed our way. The silver lining for South Dakota in all this, Dye said, was that the upper-atmospheric smoke might lower the temperature, potentially inhibiting the development of rain storms which could otherwise form on Friday.

“[The smoke] could actually help...,” Dye said. “We’ve got some more widespread, isolated showers, but that’s it.”

So thanks to a wildfire in Canada, the capital area might enjoy a sunny, cooler — if hazy — first weekend in June.

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