June 21, 2018
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Smoke from Quebec fires causes DEP to raise air quality warning to ‘unhealthy’

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

FORT KENT, Maine — Smoke from wildfires burning in northern Quebec continues to flow south, leading Maine air quality officials to issue particulate level warnings for the second day in a row.

Tuesday’s particulate pollution levels were raised to “unhealthy/red,” according to Martha Webster, Maine Department of Environmental Protection air quality meteorologist. On Monday her agency issued a “limited health” warning.

“We did issue the warning this morning,” she said Tuesday. “The [air quality] values have been dropping and the smoke has been spreading a bit farther south.”

Under “unhealthy/red” conditions, people with heart or lung disease, the elderly and children should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion and everyone else should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion, according to the Maine DEP’s website.

A northerly and northwesterly flow of air has pushed the smoke about 400 miles from northern Quebec near James Bay down to Maine.

“There is a front coming in that will push some of the smoke back, but it will not push out of northern Maine until later today [or] even tomorrow,” Webster said early Tuesday afternoon.

That front, according to the DEP website, will not move much on Tuesday, resulting in the smoke remaining in Maine throughout the day in heavier concentrations than first forecast.

The fires producing the smoke affecting Maine were touched off in early June by lightning strikes, according to Eloise Richard, information officer with Societe de Protection des Forets Contre le Feu based in Quebec City.

“The fires are way up north and the wind during the weekend to today is bringing all the smoke down south into the province and into Maine,” Richard said.

More than 247,000 acres are still burning in a line from James Bay west to the Quebec-Labrador border.

Early Tuesday morning, Environment Canada issued smoke warnings for Montreal east to the Gaspe region, according to an online report in the Montreal Gazette.

Canadian media also are reporting that residents in parts of Wabush, Labrador, on the Quebec border have been evacuated due to the fires.

Particulates created by the smoke and blowing over Maine can be some of the most dangerous when reaching the levels currently measured by the DEP, said Ed Miller, senior vice president for public policy with the American Lung Association of the Northeast.

“People equate particle pollution with visible smoke and a lot of times that is not just what we are concerned about,” Miller said Tuesday. “It’s the fine particles, the ones not visible that are actually small enough to pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream, that are dangerous under today’s conditions.”

Breathing in these fine particles, Miller said, can not only cause respiratory issues, but also have cardiovascular effects, including causing heart attacks.

“These [air quality] alerts are serious and I wish I could say they are uncommon,” Miller said. “We are getting more and more of them and will probably get more as the climate changes and you see these kinds of fires going on in the western part of this country and in northern Canada.”

The issues become more serious for the elderly who may already have multiple chronic diseases and for young children who, Miller said, pound-for-pound, take in more air with each breath.

Around the St. John Valley, residents reported reduced visibility, smelling smoke and experiencing burning eyes after working outdoors on Monday and Tuesday.

Those conditions will start to clear soon, according to information from the National Weather Service office in Caribou.

“We should see some improvement in the coming days,” Rich Okulski, the meteorologist in charge at the Caribou NWS, said Tuesday. “A Bermuda high will turn our airflow from north to coming from the south [and] in terms of air quality that means less smoke as the source of our air will be out of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Those conditions should hold at least through the end of this week,” Okulski said. “Then that high flattens out over the weekend and that could allow more smoke in. We need to wait and see.”

Information on the DEP statement is available on the agency’s website: http://www.maine.gov/dep/air/ozone/.

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