Wildfire smoke subsiding in CT, but could return by early next week

Photo of Peter Yankowski

The hazy skies and unusual red appearance of the sun for those in Connecticut this week may be interesting to look at, but the phenomenon has caused health concerns particularly in the western part of the state.

The smoky haze has been the result of wildfires burning in the western United States and Canada. It prompted air quality alerts for Connecticut and much of the New York City metro area that went as far as discouraging people from going outside due to the elevated levels of fine particles in the smoke. The alert lasted through midnight Wednesday.

“Certainly ... Tuesday was the worst,” said Gary Lessor, director of the Western Connecticut State University Weather Center in Danbury. “We had unhealthy air quality across most of the state. It has improved today.”

The air quality alert said levels of fine particles would be present statewide that could affect sensitive groups such as people with heart and lung conditions, older people and children and teens. In the western part of the state, levels of fine particles were high enough to affect everyone, the alert said.

Dr. Richard Krinsky a pulmonologist and medical director of the intensive care unit at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington, said the hospital has been receiving a lot of phone calls from people having difficulty breathing as a result of the particles in the air.

“It’s been quite higher than one would expect,” he said.

The fine particles from the fires can get into the lower respiratory tree and cause irritation to the nasal mucus membrane and respiratory lining, he said. For people with asthma or chronic lung disease, their conditions are exacerbated — “more shortness of breath, more exercise limitation,” Krinsky said.

The poor air quality comes as cases of COVID-19 have ticked up slightly in Connecticut as the nation has seen a rise in cases likely tied to the delta variant.

“Viral infection in and of itself is incredibly inflammatory, this can only add to that,” said Krinsky. “Just our luck, the delta variant is way more infectious and virulent.”

Will Healey, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said precaution is still recommended for people sensitive to air quality who are in areas with moderate air index qualities.

A cold front moving down from Canada is expected to push all of the smoke from the wildfires to the south, which could clear the skies by Thursday. But he said the smoke could return as early as Sunday if the fires continue to burn.

For those who are concerned, Lessor had a recommendation that will be all to familiar to residents: wear a mask.

“That would hopefully provide at least some protection from the smoke and particulates if you are concerned about it,” Lessor said.

Aside from air quality alerts, the smoky haze produced dramatic sunsets around the area, with some in New York City reporting a brilliant red sun.

The haze had a mild cooling effect. On Tuesday, the high temperature for the day came in about two degrees cooler than forecast, Lessor said. But the smoke trapped heat, making mornings warmer.

In southern Oregon, the Bootleg Fire has burned more than 340,000 acres of land, The New York Times reported. But wildfires in British Columbia and Siberia are also producing the smoke, according to Lessor.

“It’s becoming a global concern because of the intensity of these fires and how big they are,” Healey said.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t see an end in sight because the fires are being driven by regional droughts. The dry air from the fires are also creating their own “microclimates.”

“Sometime Sunday [or] Monday, as long as the patterns persist across the country as they are now, then the smoke could return,” he said.

Krinsky, the pulmonologist, said people should be mindful of the poor air quality and pace themselves and hydrate appropriately. He recommended people work in the morning, when the air is a little bit more tolerable, and try to stay around air conditioning because the machine helps to filter out particulates. If driving, keep the car’s climate-control settings on recirculate to help filter out the dusty air. “If it’s hazy out there, that’s the air you’re sucking into the car,” he said.

“People need to keep in mind, the air quality is kind of atrocious right now,” Krinsky added.