Smoke from Canadian wildfires returned to central Virginia on Thursday, elevating the air quality alert in Albemarle County to “unhealthy.”
That level means there are enough “fine particles” from that smoke in the air to increase “respiratory effects in the general population,” and be particularly dangerous to people with heart or lung disease, according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Meteorologists expect the smoke to remain through Thursday night, then begin to move off Friday.
“The smoke right now is coming from wildfires predominantly in Ontario and Quebec,” said Travis Koshko, the chief meteorologist at CBS19. “I think that starting this evening, the winds will start to shift. Instead of coming from a northwesterly direction, like they have been the last 24-36 hours, bringing smoke into the area, they’re going to shift more to the south/southwest. That will give us a bit of a reprieve.”
It will also bring more heat and humidity, Koshko added.
This might be a pattern in central Virginia this summer. Wildfires have been burning mercilessly in Canada since late April. They are so widespread and severe that the country does not have the resources necessary to contain them.
As of Thursday there were more than 500 active forest fires, more than 250 of which were deemed “out of control” by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
More than 20 million acres of Canada’s forests have burned this year. For context, the state of Virginia is roughly 25 million acres.
With much of Canada experiencing abnormally dry weather — if not full-on drought — it doesn’t look like conditions will change anytime soon.
That leaves the eastern part of the United States, including central Virginia, at the mercy of wind direction, Koshko said.
“I think this summer is gonna be a case where either we get smoke when the winds are generally from the north, or we get the heat and humidity when the winds are from some component of the south,” Koshko said.
In general, officials advise people to stay indoors once air quality reaches “unhealthy” levels. (There are five air quality levels: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous.)
For those who must be outside when the air quality is poor, N95 and KN95 masks can help, Koshko said.
“Wildfire particles are 2.5 microns in size,” he said. “N95 and KN95 masks filter out anything bigger than 0.3 microns. So, the best way to aid in those respiratory ailments and get some relief from the smoke, if you have to be outside, is that giant stash of N95 and KN95 masks from COVID.”