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By Catherine Clabby

This won’t surprise people who endured it, but state data show that air quality sometimes reached unhealthy, even hazardous, levels during the time wildfires raged in western North Carolina last fall.

Thirty fires, including some set by arson, scorched 80,000 acres in drought-stricken western counties during October and November. The smoke produced by the worst rash of fires on record in North Carolina carried particle pollution that reached levels dangerous to everyone, not only people with compromised health.

“This was some of the highest levels we’ve seen,” Mike Abraczinskas, deputy director of the state division of air quality told state Environmental Management Commission members on Thursday.

The Boteler Fire backs over a ridge on the southeast flank of the fire. Photo by Mark Jamieson, USFS

The experience, he said, tutored state environmental and county health officials further on how to quickly spread the word when an environmental health threat unexpectedly blooms.

Breathing smoky pollution from out-of-control fires can pose health risks to anyone if contamination is high enough, but it is particularly dangerous to older people, to anyone with heart or lung disease and to children.

North Carolina environmental officials use the color-coded Air Quality Index to characterize air pollution conditions and to warn people when exposure to outdoors air could cause health effects in a matter of hours or days.

The index conveys 24-hour averages of ground level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide levels, which the state can with permanent and mobile sensors. Green signals good conditions while orange indicates risks for people sensitive, including those with asthma, to air pollution exposure. Red is unhealthy, purple is very unhealthy, and maroon is hazardous.

The national air quality standard for danger is when fine particles reach 35 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) averaged over 24 hours.

Joint Information Center, created by government agencies collaborating to keep the public informed about wild fires in western North Carolina.

On Nov. 14 in Franklin, concentrations of fine particles averaged over 24 hours peaked at 364 ug/m3, code maroon, a written report submitted to the EMC says. That same day, a 24-hour average of 154.8 ug/m3 was recorded in Robbinsville, a code purple.

All in all, the air quality division’s permanent and mobile monitors detected 24 instances of code orange conditions during the fires, 11 instances of code red, two in code purple and two in code maroon.

Beyond drought conditions, multiple factors influenced the severity of the fires and the pollution they produced, Abraczinskas said. For one, they struck when leaves had recently fallen from trees. Those leaves blanketed the extensive forests of  the region, providing additional fuel for the fires. Conditions were so bad that then-Gov. Pat McCrory declared states of emergency in 47 counties.

Also, meteorological conditions were ripe at points for an inversion layer to form, which happens when a layer of warm air traps dense, colder air (and the pollution in it) close to the ground. That slowed dispersal of smoke from some locations, especially from valleys and other lower ground.

“This was an extreme event,” Abraczinskas said.

State and federal officials cooperated to spread word of deteriorated air quality as quickly as they could, via traditional news media and social media, including Facebook posts and Twitter updates. The fact that people reshared updates was helpful, Abraczinskas said.

The Chestnut Knob Fire started on Sunday November 6, 2016 at 8-00 am in South Mountain State park 10 miles south of Morganton, NC. Photo courtesy: NC Forest Service.

The air quality division, part of the state Department of Environmental Quality, also issued a visibility guide during the event.  Since people who live in the mountains often know how far a given landmark is from where they live, it was one more tool intended to help residents observe when air quality conditions were declining.

The guide says visibility of 10 or more miles means air quality index is good. If people can see 3 miles or less, conditions have plunged into the unhealthy and hazardous zones.

Better prepared

At a more local level, the fires helped county officials in western North Carolina be better positioned to get information and protective gear to residents during the next environmental health emergency, Clay County Health Director Janice Patterson said.

Her department posted regular updates on air quality on its website and urged people to sign up for the public CodeRed Emergency Notification system, which hundreds did. Those enrolled will now receive alerts by phone or text when threats strike, whether it be drinking water contamination, extended utility outages, evacuation notices or dangerous air pollution from fires.

The Chestnut Knob Fire started on Sunday November 6, 2016 at 8-00 am in South Mountain State park 10 miles south of Morganton, NC. Photo courtesy: NC Forest Service.

“You can’t depend on a newspaper published once a week. People need information in real time,” she said.

Next time, Patterson said, her department might take some steps sooner, such as issuing protective masks for people vulnerable to even moderate air pollution. Eventually, Patterson’s staff coordinated distribution at four locations after the fires persisted. “That took time. We needed to get them trucked in from the eastern part of the state,” she said.

That said, people in her county moved extremely quickly to look after one another, Patterson stressed. Nursing homes opened their doors to people evacuated from their homes who were too frail to handle emergency shelters, for instance. And volunteer firefighters protected subdivisions when flames got too close to homes.

People are also well aware that damage done last fall could have been much worse, she said. No homes were destroyed by the blazes, according to state officials, and no one among the 2,500 people battling them were badly hurt.

“If we had gale force winds things could have been different here,” she said. “We could have been Gatlinburg.”

Throughout the year, the publicly supported EnviroFlash! dispatches alerts regarding air quality by zip code via e-mail. Registration is here.

Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...