The Worst of Wisconsin’s Wildfire Air is Behind Us – But Our Air Quality Will Continue to Be Compromised in the Future

Credit to the Wisconsin DNR

By Fiona Hatch
July 17, 2023

Here’s why, and what you can do to prepare.

Hundreds of out-of-control wildfires have been raging across Canada over the last 6 weeks as the country enters its wildfire season. In June, the US was hit by several waves of wildfire smoke pouring down from its northern neighbor. The smoke content was particularly apparent in the Northeast and Midwest.

In Madison, the air quality index (AQI) reached as high as 280 in Madison, only 20 points away from ‘hazardous.’ And the rest of the state wasn’t much better off; Milwaukee reached nearly 200 AQI over the same period. 

For Wisconsin and the rest of the U.S., hazy air is becoming increasingly common. The 2018 Californian wildfires were the deadliest and most destructive ever reported in the state, and North America’s wildfire seasons have only intensified since then. As checking the current air quality before heading out the door becomes a normal part of our lives, it’s important to know why the world is seeing this downward trend – and what you can do to prepare. 

Why Are There More Wildfires?

Canada’s ongoing wildfires are the primary cause behind Wisconsin’s recent air quality issues. Wildfires in this region are not uncommon and Canada’s boreal forests actually benefit from a healthy wildfire season, which stretches from May to October. 

But giant fires are becoming more and more common. Much of Canada is experiencing drier than average conditions caused by rising temperatures and drought-like conditions linked to climate change. 

Air quality will continue to decrease as the effects of climate change intensify. The warming climate only exacerbates the hot and dry conditions that help fires catch and spread. Windblown dust from drought-like conditions paired with more wildfire smoke will inevitably increase the particulate matter in our air. 

What Does This Mean for Wisconsin?

States in the midwest, including Wisconsin, are being hit the hardest by smoke from Canada’s wildfires. 

In Madison, the smog was dense enough to reduce visibility on the roads and cloud the view of the state’s capitol building. Conditions were no better in Chicago, where the city’s iconic skyline was shrouded in smoky cloud cover.

People in the affected regions have experienced symptoms like stinging eyes, scratchy throats, coughing, chest pains and more. Health providers across the Midwest, including SSM Health in Madison, are reporting upticks in respiratory cases caused, in some part, by the wildfire smoke. 

Pets are also impacted. Experts recommend you keep your pets inside as much as possible when air quality is poor, especially birds and dogs. Animals kept in commercial production or barns are at the highest risk of inhaling toxic air pollutants because these buildings often lack a good air filtration system.

What Can You Do?

As air quality likely continues to worsen as the climate warms and wildfires become more frequent, it’s best to be prepared. This is what experts say you can do during an air quality alert:

Wear an N95 mask.

Cloth masks don’t protect against the PM 2.5 particles found in wildfire smoke. Investing in an N95 mask and wearing it whenever you have to spend time outdoors in hazardous air is a good way to protect your lungs when you cannot stay indoors. 

Invest in an air purifier.

Air purifiers help remove air particulate, including those found in wildfire smoke. If you do not have central air conditioning, this might be a good time to upgrade. There are also ways to DIY an air purifier if you have a standing fan and some other materials. 

Know your level of risk.

Pregnant women, children, older adults and people with asthma or other chronic heart and lung conditions are at highest risk of experiencing severe side effects from smoke exposure

Sensitive groups should take additional precautions and remain indoors as much as possible. While the EPA recommends limiting time outdoors when the air quality index is above 200, sensitive groups are advised to stay inside with an AQI as low as 101. 

Click here to check the current AQI in your area.


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