In May, NASA satellite images tracked smoke from a wildfire burning near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada drifting over Spain. Though it eventually retreated from Western Europe, smoke from the fire, nicknamed The Beast, spread and lingered across much of the Central U.S. and as far southeast as Florida during its two-month-long burn.
Beyond the immediate loss of life and property in the burn zones, the spread of wildfire smoke and ash can have a marked impact on healthy air quality in areas within a radius of hundreds — even thousands — of miles. Though fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, clearing dead brush to make way for new growth, their steady increase over the past few decades have made their impact far more severe.
Climate scientists and meteorologists see prevailing winds carrying smoke across the continent. As plumes rise to 20,000 feet and above, they get caught up in the jetstream — high-altitude currents that circuit air quickly from west to east. In the best-case scenario, pollutants don’t set off air-quality alerts, but instead create colorful sunsets; in the worst-case scenario, air quality can plummet to unhealthy and very unhealthy levels.
Among pollutants present in wildfire smoke, the largest concern is particulate matter. Larger particles from wood-fire smoke present a health risk and reduce visibility; for example, the Erskine Fire in Kern County, California clouded air as far east as Reno and Las Vegas. Smoke also contains potentially dangerous amounts of gases, the most-prevalent of which is carbon monoxide.
Outside evacuation zones, public-health officials advise residents within range of wildfire smoke to stay indoors and seal up their homes as much as possible. With windows and doors shut, the best course is to run the air conditioning with outdoor venting turned off. Of course, absent the ability to “air out” the house through windows and doors, indoor, smoke-fighting air purifiers can help mitigate any pollutants produced by regular activity around the house, such as cooking and burning candles.