The Bulletin

Canadian and western wildfires bring hazardous smoke to Virginia

By: - July 21, 2021 11:59 am

The sun sets over a hazy mountain ridge in Highland County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Massive wildfires near the Ontario-Minnesota border as well as blazes farther west in Canada and the United States are bringing smoke throughout Virginia, causing state officials to issue a health alert Wednesday morning due to high levels of particulate matter. 

“It’s basically all over the state at this point,” said Virginia Department of Environmental Quality meteorologist Dan Salkovitz. “All the monitors that we’ve got in the state are elevated today.” 

State air quality monitors registered the highest levels of fine particulate matter in Winchester and the lowest in Hampton, although all of the reports were higher than normal. 

Particulate matter is a mixture of solid and liquid droplets in the air that can be inhaled. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to these particles can aggravate respiratory systems and heart function and can exacerbate existing conditions such as asthma. 

Much of the smoke seen in Virginia is coming from a plume generated by hundreds of fires in Ontario, said Salkovitz, although blazes along the West Coast are also contributing. While earlier this week the effects were mostly seen in hazy skies and brilliant sunsets, smoke began mixing with air closer to the earth’s surface today, driving down air quality. 

A cold front behind the plume is expected to bring clearer air, Salkovitz said, but “unfortunately that front is taking its sweet time to get here.” 

Smoke from the western and Canadian wildfires has caused problems throughout the East Coast this week, triggering officials in numerous states to issue health alerts. 

While wildfires are driven by a variety of factors, scientists have linked their increasing incidence and intensity in the West with climate change, which has been driving up temperatures and changing precipitation patterns.

Virginia residents can sign up to receive air quality alerts from DEQ here

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.