Haze from Minnesota wildfire prompts health warning
By Mike Danahey email@example.com With wire reports September 13, 2011 3:02PM
Rush hour traffic makes its way along Route 34 through a thick haze caused by smoke which settled into the area Tuesday. The smoke came from forest fires in northern Minnesota. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 9, 2011 5:49PM
That wasn’t your neighbor burning early autumn leaves or a house fire in a nearby town making the sky hazy and breathing difficult for some people Tuesday.
Kane County’s Emergency Management Center issued a special weather alert after smoke from a large wildfire in Minnesota almost 600 miles away began to move into far northern Illinois Tuesday afternoon.
That move came about after the National Weather Service’s Chicago office issued a warning to a good portion of Illinois from the Wisconsin border south to Watseka and in Indiana northeast to Valparaiso and south to Rensselaer.
According to the Weather Service, the smoke from the huge fire burning more than 400 miles northwest of the Chicago metro area wafted down this way due to northerly winds behind a cold front that moved into the area Tuesday morning.
Calmer winds Wednesday should slow the growth of the wildfire, the U.S. Forest Service said. But the haze has still prompted officials Illinois to warn residents about possible health risks.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued an Air Pollution Action Day alert for the Chicago Metropolitan area for Wednesday. The impacted area includes Cook, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.
Elevated levels of fine particulate matter pose health risks to sensitive populations, especially individuals with respiratory or pulmonary disorders as well as active children and adults.
The blaze has swallowed at least 160 square miles at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, making it one of the largest on record in the state, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Lisa Radosevich-Craig said.
Radosevich-Craig said about 200 highly experienced firefighters from federal and state agencies will join the battle against the wildfire.
“There is no cause for alarm, since the fire is more than 400 miles northwest of Illinois,” said Elgin Fire Chief John Fahy on Tuesday. “But people should be aware that they can expect hazy skies and a distinct burning odor in the air.”
People in Lake and McHenry counties were reporting difficulty breathing and a burning sensation in their eyes Tuesday morning.
“People with respiratory problems should take precautions and remain inside as the smoke moves through our area,” Fahy said.
Fahy said he first noticed the odor himself at his West Dundee home Monday evening and thought it might be coming from a neighbor’s fire pit.
A driver commuting from Chicago to Elgin early Tuesday afternoon said she began to notice the haze and smoky air as she approached Schaumburg along Interstate 90. An Algonquin resident claimed she has noticed a smell like burnt rubber building for several days.
The Chicago area wasn’t the only metropolitan area affected.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources agency’s air quality monitor showed a spike in particle pollution throughout Tuesday in the southeast part of the state including Milwaukee, and it issued an air quality alert for sensitive groups in the area.
The haze forced Miller Park officials to close the stadium’s roof before the Milwaukee Brewers took the field for a game against the Colorado Rockies, park officials said. The smoke also reached Michigan, where forecasters said it rode northwesterly winds from a cool front.
Jim Richardson, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Minnesota, said it wasn’t unusual for the smoke to spread so far, noting that smoke from Arizona’s massive wildfire in May reached Minnesota.
Residents of the small Minnesota town of Ely are braced for possible evacuation after strong winds whipped the forest fire into a blaze covering about 93 square miles in the northeastern part of the state.
The fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — a lake-dotted region along the Minnesota-Canada border — on Tuesday was sending a plume of smoke and haze across a sizeable portion of the Upper Midwest, with reports of haze in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.
The fire started Aug. 18 with a lighting strike 20 miles from Ely, but began spreading quickly this week in windy, dry conditions. The fire raced 16 miles east in a single day from Monday to Tuesday.
According to reports, the fire more than doubled in size from Sunday until Monday. By Tuesday strong winds had whipped the fire into a blaze covering about 93 square miles in northeastern Minnesota
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Jean Bergerson said Monday that the Pagami Creek fire had grown to 11,000 acres, from 4,500 acres on Sunday. Bergerson said about 70 hikers and canoeists had been moved from Lakes Two through Hudson and the Isabella River. Several waterways, entry points and portages in that area were been closed, including the popular Lake One and Isabella Lake entry points.
An animated map showing how the smoke has spread is available at www.crh.noaa.gov/news/display_cmsstory.php?wfo=mkx&storyid=72984&source=0. Mold counts soar
If the smoke weren’t enough of an issue for those battling respiratory woes, the mold count Tuesday was 54,000 and well over the 50,000 threshold that signals a dangerous air quality warning.
This is the third time a high mold alert has been declared in the 2011 allergy reporting season, according to Loyola University Health System’s Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, where the official allergy count is done.
“Headaches, sinus congestion, runny noses and fatigue will be common among Chicagoans,” said Dr. Joseph Leija, the allergist who performs the official allergy count.
Leija is the only person certified by the National Allergy Bureau to perform the daily official allergy count for the Midwest.
“The rain; the warm, humid weather; the barometric pressure change, the humidity — all these elements combine to create the dangerously high mold count,” he said of the unusual Tuesday morning count.
“Allergy sufferers should stay indoors, keep the windows closed and use their air conditioners, and take their allergy medications.”