Smoke got in our eyes — and throats and lungs — Saturday, courtesy of a wildfire in a Virginia swamp more than 200 miles away.
Before afternoon rains cleared the air, fire departments in the Baltimore area reported numerous calls from residents who thought that where there is smoke, there must be fire. There was, but it was in the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia, where a wildfire ignited by lighting Aug. 4 has consumed nearly 6,000 acres and continued to burn Saturday.
"We were out chasing smoke," said Capt. James Rostek of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, which received almost 50 calls about the haze that wafted over the area from the swamp fire.
Rostek and other area fire officials issued statements Saturday urging people to call 911 only if they saw a column of smoke or flames and explaining that the haze was from a fire in Virginia. Reports of smoke came from as far north as Aberdeen in Harford County.
In Baltimore, fire officials advised residents with respiratory problems to seek medical attention if they experienced any difficulty. The department also suggested that residents close their windows and doors to prevent the smoke from bothering those inside. There were about 30 fire calls about the Virginia smoke in the city.
The Maryland Department of the Environment was forecasting better air quality on Sunday, when a low-pressure system was expected to move across the region and bring more rain to the area. Saturday's air quality was listed as moderate, meaning that persons with unusually high sensitivities should consider reducing their amount of exertion; Sunday's air quality is forecast to rise to the good range, in which the level of pollution poses little or no health risks.
Rostek said Anne Arundel didn't experience any uptick in medical calls as a result of the haze. Calls to several Baltimore emergency rooms also found no increase in respiratory cases.
Saturday's smoke, while noticeable in many areas, didn't seem to hamper outdoor activities as much as the afternoon downpour.
"I just thought someone was having a barbecue," said Terence Tse, 22, a Johns Hopkins graduate student who with two fellow students went ahead with their plans for a 35- or 40-mile bike ride. "It doesn't seem that bad."
The riders, who were making their way through Druid Hill Park, perhaps have a better tolerance than most for long rides and bad air — Tse, Kieran Coleman, 21, and Kevin Cochran, 20, pedaled 4,000 miles to San Francisco last summer as part of a fundraiser for cancer research.
"There was that feedlot in Colorado," Cochran recalled.
The fire in the Dismal Swamp is the largest ever in that federal wildlife refuge, according to news reports. Hundreds of firefighters have been battling the blaze, which was exacerbated by hot, dry and windy conditions and was only 10 percent contained by Saturday.