Smoke from West Coast wildfires brings hazy skies to Maine

It’s sunny in Maine today, but it’s a little hard to tell.

Plumes from record-breaking and deadly fires burning on the West Coast have been picked up by the atmospheric jet stream and carried across the United States. In Maine, that smoke is creating a hazy sky and unusually colorful sunrises and sunsets, but it is not expected to cause any air quality issues at the ground level.

“It’s all visual. It’s just going to make the sky look different,” said meteorologist William Watson with the National Weather Service in Gray. “There isn’t really an effect other than that because it’s so high up in the atmosphere.”

The arrival of smoke from the West Coast comes as Maine’s potential for local wildfires also is high because of dry and breezy conditions. Mainers were being warned Wednesday to take extra precautions against igniting wildfires here.

West Coast-originating smoke has been seen as far away as the Netherlands and Hamburg, Germany, the Associated Press reported. Data collected by the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service found smoke from the fires had traveled almost 5,000 miles through the atmosphere to Britain and other parts of northern Europe.

This is not the first time smoke from the West Coast has made it to Maine. Watson said the same thing happened for a day or two in 2018 when there were large wildfires in California.

“Unfortunately, it hasn’t been terribly uncommon in the past two or three years,” he said.

People in California, Oregon and Washington state have struggled for more than a week with some of the most unhealthy air on the planet from the raging wildfires. Scientists predict the acrid yellow-green smog may linger in those areas for weeks. The air was so thick that an airline stopped flights to Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington, earlier this week. Businesses have closed temporarily and residents can’t go outside for walks.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Index is considered hazardous between 301 and 500. Values above 500 — which multiple Oregon cities have reported during the past week — are beyond the index’s scale.

The fires are also throwing off significant amounts of pollutants. NASA says satellite readings taken over the last week show high-altitude concentrations of carbon monoxide that are more than 10 times above normal.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s daily air quality forecast shows low levels of ground-level ozone and particulate pollution across the entire state, indicating there are so far no general health concerns here from the high-level smoke. But the department did release a special status note about the potential impact of the wildfire smoke.

“Smoke is forecast to remain overhead today. It is expected to remain aloft. However, what we have seen in the past is that random ‘bubbles’ of smoke may reach the ground in a location for an hour or two. If you smell smoke please reduce your level and duration of exertion,” the note said.

The haze could lift in Maine as a surface-level cold front sweeps through Maine on Thursday, but that may not be the end of it.

“It looks like there is still smoke being generated from out west, so it will continue to be carried across the country,” Watson said. “Tomorrow may clear it up some for Friday and into the first part of the weekend, but there’s a good chance there could be another surge of it this weekend.”

While Mainers won’t need to take any precautions from the smoke, they may want to keep an eye out for vivid sunrises and sunsets. They tend to look more pink, orange and red when wildfire smoke is in the air because light is refracting a little differently from normal, Watson said.

“Take some good pictures, that would be my suggested action,” he said.

Unrelated to the West Coast fires, the weather service in Maine issued a special weather statement about the elevated fire risk in Maine on Wednesday and urged people to take extra precautions to prevent wildfires.

The weather service says a very dry air mass and breezy conditions will combine with dead and dry fuels such as grass, leaves and twigs to create the potential for uncontrolled fire spread across western Maine and most of New Hampshire. Maine and the northeast have experienced dry conditions throughout the summer and the entire state is now officially in a drought.

The Maine Forest Service said in late June that there had already been 712 wildfires in Maine this year, the second-highest total in the past decade. As of this week, there have been 893 wildfires across the state that covered more than 966 acres.

This story will be updated. 

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