Western wildfire smoke dims Michigan skies, but air quality 'good'

Staff and wire reports

The smoke from dozens of wildfires in the western United States is stretching clear across the country — creating a haze over Michigan and even pushing into Canada and Europe.

While the dangerous plumes are forcing people inside along the West Coast, residents thousands of miles away are seeing unusually hazy skies and remarkable sunsets.

The wildfires racing across tinder-dry landscape in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington are extraordinary, but the long reach of their smoke isn't unprecedented.

Experts say the smoke poses less of a health concern for those who are farther away.

In Michigan, it appears the smoke just made the skies hazy.

Stephanie Hengesbach,a staff meteorologist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, or EGLE, said the smoke was pretty obvious when looking into the sky over the past few days.

Fishermen enjoy a chat as the sunrise is hampered by wildfire smoke from fires burning in the Western United States, at Kensington Metropark in Milford, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

"This week, you could look directly at the sun because it wasn't bright," she said. "It was orange and it made for some very pretty sunrises and sunsets. That's for sure."

Fortunately, the smoke didn't have much more of an impact than that, Hengesbach said.

"The smoke made its way to our region, but it's so high up in the atmosphere with the weather setup we have, it's acting more like a cloud," she said. "It's not reaching the (earth's) surface. It has not affected our air quality across the state at all this last week."

She said EGLE has been monitoring air quality and found it to have good levels of ozone and air particulates.

Ozone concentrations and air quality in Michigan were rated "Good" this past Monday through Thursday, according to the agency's Air Quality Index. The agency also forecasts the state's ozone and air quality will remain "good" into next week.

Hengesbach noted that on Thursday the skies over Michigan were already returning to their usual shade of blue.

She said there are instances when smoke from fires in other parts of the country can reach Michigan and can affect the air quality. On those occasions, EGLE issues air quality or Ozone Action Day alerts because the air can be unhealthy for people with breathing problems, children and older people, she said.

The current weather system, which favors a westerly wind across the higher levels of the atmosphere, is to blame for the reach of the smoke, experts explained.

"We always seem, at times, to get the right combination of enough smoke and the upper level jet stream to line up to bring that across the country, so we're just seeing this again," said Matt Solum with the National Weather Service's regional operations center in Salt Lake City, Utah. "It's definitely not the first time this has happened."

The sun was transformed into a perfect orange orb as it set over New York City on Tuesday. Photographs of it sinking behind the skyline and glinting through tree leaves flooded social media.

On Wednesday, New Jersey residents described a yellow tinge to the overcast skies, and weather forecasters were kept busy explaining the phenomenon and making predictions as to how long the conditions would last.

On the West Coast, air quality conditions were among some of the worst ever recorded. Smoke cloaked the Golden Gate Bridge and left Portland and Seattle in an ashy fog, as crews have exhausted themselves trying to keep the flames from consuming more homes and even wider swaths of forest.

Satellite images showed that smoke from the wildfires has traveled almost 5,000 miles to Britain and other parts of northern Europe, scientists said Wednesday.

There could be some easing of the haze this weekend as a storm system is expected to move into the Pacific Northwest and could affect the conditions that helped the smoke travel across the country. But Solum said there's always a chance for more smoke and haze to shift around.

"Just due to all the wildfires that are going on, this is likely going to continue for a while," he said. "You might have ebbs and flows of that smoke just depending on how the upper level winds set up."

Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, said she woke up Wednesday to a red sunrise and more haze.

She said millions of people who live beyond the flames can end up dealing with diminished air quality as it's not uncommon for wildfire smoke to travel hundreds of miles.

The health impacts are reduced the farther and higher into the atmosphere the smoke travels, Knowlton and her colleagues said, but it can add to ozone pollution.

Detroit News Staff Writer Charles E. Ramirez contributed.