Hazy skies are expected to linger in the Baltimore area into Friday, with winds carrying wildfire smoke from eastern Canada, causing air quality alerts to be issued up and down the East Coast.
A murky gray clouded the horizon across much of Maryland on Wednesday, and smoky odors were in the air, prompting residents to cancel outdoor activities and don masks previously cast aside as the coronavirus pandemic subsided.
The Maryland Department of the Environment issued a Code Red air quality alert covering much of the state Wednesday, with the exception of Western Maryland, where conditions were better. The Code Red alert means air quality is unhealthy for the general population.
Officials are warning area residents to limit their time outdoors, and avoid strenuous activity and exercise outside. Children, older adults and individuals with compromised immune systems and respiratory and cardiovascular conditions are particularly vulnerable, and are advised to wear well-fitting N95 masks if they must go outdoors, to reduce exposure to fine particles.
Most air monitors around the state were in the red zone Wednesday for particulate matter, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment, with an air quality index between 150 and 200, where a value lower than 50 is considered good and 300 an emergency.
Monitors located near the Maryland border in Seaford, Delaware, and in Alexandria, Virginia, entered the more hazardous purple zone with levels between 200 and 300, indicating the air is “very unhealthy.”
Particulate matter — which is made up of fine, inhalable particles of dust, soot and smoke — is the chief health concern when it comes to wildfire smoke, said Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. These particles can get deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, and cause many health effects including asthma attacks, difficulty breathing and irregular heartbeats.
As a result of the conditions, DeCarlo, who lives in the northern part of Baltimore City, said he decided to keep his two young children home from a soccer summer camp Wednesday, which still was planning to hold outdoor activities for about half of the day.
As she walked around Baltimore’s hazy Inner Harbor on Wednesday afternoon, city resident Jalisa Hunter said she was planning to keep her children off the playground after school.
“Today we’re definitely just gonna go straight home,” Hunter said. “I’ll probably send them to school with masks for the rest of the week.”
Some local swimming pools and sports leagues made the same choice, pausing activities amid the dangerous conditions.
In Baltimore City, officials are working to deliver KN95 masks to the homeless population and city workers who must be outdoors, said Bryan Doherty, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott. The city is advising all entities with outdoor activities planned for Wednesday or Thursday to cancel or move indoors, Doherty said.
Howard County Public Schools has canceled all outdoor activities in the HCPSS system, including those planned for after school, through Thursday. It also has directed schools to move all activities indoors, if possible, or to reschedule or cancel. Individual schools will communicate that information to families as soon as possible. All community-sponsored programs on HCPSS outdoor facilities are also canceled.
Dr. Jay Kirkham, an interventional pulmonologist at Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore, compared prolonged exposure to the hazy conditions to breathing in secondhand cigarette smoke.
“It’s like walking around casinos back in the day,” he said.
As the poor air quality continues, Kirkham said he’s expecting an uptick of patients seeking hospital care for breathing concerns, exacerbated lung conditions, heart attacks and strokes, though he hasn’t seen an increase just yet.
As Lebonne Oliver walked to work in downtown Baltimore on Wednesday, she donned a face mask, aiming to protect herself from the pollutants since she suffers from asthma.
“If anyone has any type of side effects, who smoke or have any lung conditions, they should absolutely decide to wear masks for their safety to avoid any type of health issues,” Oliver said. “The mask is helping out for now.”
Randy Mosier, deputy program manager with the air quality planning program at the Maryland Department of the Environment, said Wednesday’s air quality event is unusual for the Baltimore area.
“It’s a rarity for us now,” he said. “It’s something we haven’t really had to deal with since the late 1990s, and that was primarily with ozone.”
Meteorologists at AccuWeather dubbed Wednesday’s event the worst smoke outbreak in the northeastern U.S. in more than 20 years, likening it to conditions more frequently seen amid industrial pollution in the developing world. Conditions were worse, however, during recent wildfires in the western United States, including the California Complex Fire in August 2020.
Erik Taylor, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service, said the milky haze enveloping the area Wednesday morning reduced visibility in some areas to 2-4 miles. That number was expected to improve slightly with the sunshine during the day, before declining again amid darkening skies, he said.
Winds out of the northwest are expected to continue carrying the wildfire smoke south, Taylor said, until Saturday and Sunday, when the winds will shift to come out of the west.
“There will still be a bit of smoke up there, but the sky should be back to what it usually looks like,” Taylor said.
As climate change creates hotter, drier conditions, and therefore increases the likelihood of wildfires, it’s important that areas in the Northeast prepare for an increase in air quality issues, DeCarlo said.
For one thing, area residents without air conditioning might not be able to protect themselves from contaminated air, especially in the summertime, when they may open windows and doors to stay cool, DeCarlo said.
“We definitely need to think about how to build out that infrastructure — not only to protect from heat and heat stress,” he said.
Smoke from the fires has wafted through Northeast U.S. states for weeks, but only recently became noticeable in most places. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said hazy skies, reduced visibility and the odor of burning wood will likely linger for a few days, The Associated Press reported.
More than 400 wildfires were burning across Canada, the AP reported, primarily in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Officials in Quebec were asking for international help to battle more than 160 forest fires, which have forced about 10,000 people to evacuate their homes. They warned this could be one of the country’s worst fire seasons ever.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jennifer Gable contributed to this article.