Smoke from Canadian wildfires causes air quality issues

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Gina Duwe
July 7, 2015

JANESVILLE—Blame Canada.

Wildfires burning north of the border have sent smoke floating over Wisconsin, but Tuesday a cold front brought the smoke to ground level, creating unhealthy air quality for certain people.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued an air quality notice Tuesday for all counties because the width and density of the smoke plume varies at any given place.

“It really can affect anybody,” said Jamie Lawrence, lead respiratory therapist at St. Mary's Janesville Hospital. “You do want to be more careful with the children, elderly and people who already have respiratory issues.”

The smoky air can affect the lining of a person's lungs, making it harder to breathe, said Sherry Lee, pulmonary rehab respiratory therapist at St. Mary's Janesville Hospital.

She said it's similar to the time when people could smoke on airplanes or in bowling alleys. Those who were susceptible to respiratory issues would feel short of breath after being in those enclosed spaces.

“It's just like a trigger—just like an allergy—it triggers their airway, constricts (it) and makes it difficult for them to breathe,” Lawrence said. 

Lawrence and Lee recommended that people take precautions suggested by their physicians, including limiting their time outside or wearing masks outdoors. People also should keep their inhalers with them and any other medications close.

Depending on air conditions, healthy people also can suffer shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing. The best recommendation is to stay inside in the air conditioning, health experts said. Those feeling short of breath should seek medical advice, or if they're in real distress, go to urgent care or the emergency room, they said.

The wildfire smoke brought several air quality monitoring sites across northern and west-central Wisconsin into the orange category, which is an unhealthy level for sensitive groups, according to the DNR. Those populations include children, elderly, people with respiratory and cardiac problems, and anyone engaged in strenuous outdoor activities for a prolonged period of time.

The forecast called for the smoke to move southeastward across the state Tuesday.

The smoke is from dozens of fires burning in Saskatchewan, fed by drought and high temperatures, The Associated Press reported. Because of the size of the fires, large amounts of smoke travel high into the atmosphere, where the upper layers have strong winds that can carry the smoke great distances.

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