Wildfires in the West cause smoky skies and air pollution in Michigan

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Detroit — Pollution in several Midwestern cities has increased as smoke produced by wildfires raging in the West arrives in the region and affects air quality. 

The result is an almost opaque sky, with colorful sunsets and sunrises in some areas. On Wednesday, more smoke originating in the Pacific Northwest and western Ontario makes it to Michigan, according to the National Weather Service. 

"This is not very common. It seems to happen maybe a couple of times a year. But this occasion certainly seems to be pretty long-lasting," said Trent Frey, a meteorologist with the weather service. 

Fog and smog were briefly visible early Tuesday, and air pollution has increased in several locations since Monday, according to fine particulate matter data from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The data measure the amount of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air.

"The smoke from these fires, basically the burning of that organic matter produces fine particles in the air. And so we all breathe that in when the air has those particles in it, and it's really irritating to even healthy lungs," said Dr. Taylor Lin, an allergist and immunologist in Ann Arbor. 

 The air quality raises concerns for everyone, but especially sensitive groups like people with asthma and other respiratory conditions. Tuesday had a rating of "moderate" air quality, but after a brief improvement on Wednesday, conditions will worsen until at least Sunday, according to the Air Quality Index produced by Swiss company IQAir.

"People who have conditions like chronic lung disease, or asthma, their lungs are already more susceptible to things in the air," said Lin. "So it can be very triggering, and it can cause problems like coughing and trouble breathing. It can really make that a lot worse for people."

The cities affected include Detroit, Dearborn and New Haven, where pollution went up by almost a quarter. In Detroit, levels on Tuesday were double the exposure recommendation, according to IQAir. 

Lin used to practice in Colorado, where she said the damage inflicted by wildfire seasons that are growing longer because of climate change was very obvious with her patients. 

"It's really important to check in with your doctor, especially when you know things are going on in the environment that trigger the underlying disease that you have, like asthma."

The view of the hazy sun looking east across a corn field on E. Sevey Road in Greenbush Township north of St. Johns on Tuesday, July 20, 2021.

Looking west, winds approaching the state will eventually clear the smoke, but are also creating hazardous conditions in Lake Michigan through Wednesday morning, with waves reaching close to 5 feet in some parts.

The National Weather Service advises against swimming in the lake until conditions improve.

"Tomorrow afternoon would be a better time, but always check the beach forecast before heading out," said Frey. 

High winds are causing hazardous swimming conditions in Lake Michigan until Wednesday morning.

So far in 2021, 19 people have drowned in Lake Michigan, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, up from 16 in June. 

More:Surfers, kite-boarders oppose Michigan's proposed high-wave swimming ban

The winds that are expected to clear some of the smoke may also bring showers and storms when they pass over eastern portion of Metro Detroit, but those are expected to subside before reaching Detroit on Tuesday evening. 

Weather will be clear until Thursday night, when a chance of showers and thunderstorms returns after 2 a.m.