A Detroit survival guide to wildfires and bad air quality

A Planet Detroit Climate Guide | Wildfire smoke is likely to be part of a “new normal” for us in Michigan. Here’s your survival guide.

Last updated: July 17, 2023

Sunset in Trenton shines red through a smoky haze on June 27, 2023—photo by Kirsten Brockmiller via Facebook.

It’s been a historic summer for poor air quality across Michigan. 

That has meant disappointment for those hoping to enjoy the outdoors in Michigan’s precious warmer months. It has also meant misery for those with respiratory and pulmonary diseases like asthma and COPD.

Wildfire smoke is likely part of a “new normal” for us in Michigan. Here’s your survival guide.

How bad has air quality been and why?

Air quality has been unhealthy or worse for at least 1 out of 3 days during summer 2023 as a result of nearly 500 wildfires burning in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. The Canadian wildfires began burning early this year in April; typically, the wildfire season in Canada runs from May through October.

The local air quality is noticeably worse than in previous years:

The air quality index across the Great Lakes has ranged from 100 to above 300 on those days, from unhealthy for sensitive groups all the way to hazardous for all groups. Only a few days have been “good” with an AQI of 50 or below. 

The composition of wildfire smoke can vary depending on factors such as the type of vegetation burning, the stage of combustion, and environmental conditions. The smoke typically contains a combination of carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), water vapor, nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter (including PM2.5 and PM10), and various other chemicals. PM2.5 has primarily driven elevated local air quality indexes.

The smoke is likely to be a recurrent fixture of summer 2023 – or until those fires in Canada are extinguished. It’s part of a new normal that we may be facing as Michiganders realize that we’re not immune to climate change’s impacts.

“So long as there’s fires going on [in Canada] and the winds are oriented such that they carry the smoke aloft towards us, then we can get wildfire smoke, “ Kevin Kacan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service based in White Lake, told Planet Detroit.

When winds shift, we’re likely to get a reprieve as we have before this week, but only until the wind shifts back.  “It comes down to how long these fires will last. If fires continue to burn then it is more likely that we’ll get more smoke days,” Kacan said.

How can breathing this air affect me?

Dr. Alexander Rabin, a pulmonary and critical care medicine physician at the University of Michigan, said the impact of the poor air quality on his patients has been “dramatic.”  

“We’re seeing patients, particularly with pre-existing lung diseases like COPD or asthma, complaining that they’re coughing, their eyes are watering, they’re having trouble breathing, and they’re having to use more of their medications and specifically their rescue inhalers and rescue medications, to be able to breathe,” he told Planet Detroit.

From a health perspective, the most concerning components of wildfire smoke are the fine particles, particularly PM2.5. These particles are very small, with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less, and can penetrate deep into the respiratory system when inhaled and even enter the bloodstream

PM2.5 can cause or exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular problems, including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. The smoke can also irritate the eyes, throat, and lungs.

An AQI measurement of 20 is equivalent to smoking one cigarette a day. Being exposed to an AQI of 150 over several days is equivalent to about seven cigarettes.

How can I protect myself and my family?

People are generally advised to stay indoors and keep windows closed when air quality is poor. Minimizing or avoiding outdoor activities – especially outdoor exertion – is recommended. Wearing a N95 mask or respirator outdoors may be a good idea.

Vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly, children, pregnant women and those with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, are at a higher risk and should take extra precautions like using air purifiers to minimize exposure to the smoke. People who work outdoors are also vulnerable.

If you don’t have an air purifier, consider creating a makeshift clean room using a central area of your home. Seal any gaps around doors and windows with weather stripping or tape. Use a portable air cleaner in that room and consider covering windows with plastic to minimize smoke infiltration further. A cheap but effective do-it-yourself air filter can be made with a box fan and furnace filter (here’s a great guide from Outlier Media).

Stay updated on local air quality conditions and follow guidance from local authorities, health agencies, or meteorological services. They often provide air quality index (AQI) reports or advisories that indicate the level of pollution and provide recommendations.

Some great ways to stay informed include:

Maintain indoor air quality by avoiding activities that can worsen it, such as smoking tobacco products, burning candles or incense, or using gas-powered appliances without proper ventilation.

Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water can help alleviate respiratory irritation caused by smoke exposure.

Seek medical advice if needed. If you or your family members experience severe symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest pain, or worsening respiratory conditions, seek medical attention promptly.

“For individuals who are outside who may have exacerbated symptoms, they really need to ensure that they seek medical care for coughing or prolonged respiratory illnesses and continue to stay indoors,” Detroit’s  Acting Chief Public Health Officer Christina Floyd told Planet Detroit.

Is this crisis caused by climate change?

Wildfires are a complex phenomenon influenced by multiple factors, including climate, vegetation, land management practices, and human activities. There is evidence that climate change is contributing to the frequency and severity of wildfires.

Climate change can influence wildfires in several ways. Rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns can lead to drier conditions, increasing the likelihood of wildfires. Dry vegetation becomes more susceptible to ignition, and fire season durations can be extended.

Climate change can cause shifts in the timing and duration of seasons, including the fire season. In some areas, fire seasons are becoming longer, providing more opportunities for wildfires to occur.

Changes in climate patterns, such as altered rainfall patterns and droughts, can affect vegetation growth and contribute to the accumulation of dry, flammable biomass. This increase in fuel availability can contribute to the intensity and spread of wildfires.

Climate change can influence weather patterns, leading to more frequent and intense heat waves, dry lightning storms, or strong winds—all of which can contribute to the ignition and spread of wildfires.


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