Maine’s air should look and smell clearer today thanks to winds that have changed direction and are pushing smoke from Canadian wildfires the other way, according to Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The agency predicted a return to good air quality, at least temporarily, after a fourth day of health alerts were posted for the state on Wednesday. However, health experts warned that a return to the wind patterns experienced earlier this week could still pose a danger to Mainers, especially those with lung or heart conditions.
“We’re just recommending that people with real serious underlying diseases take it easy,” Maine State Epidemiologist Stephen Sears said Wednesday with smoke still at moderate levels in parts of the state.
Crews fighting dozens of forest fires in northern Quebec got help Tuesday and Wednesday from cooler temperatures and some rain showers. Canadian authorities reported Wednesday that there were still 34 active fires, although it appeared all of them were controlled or contained.
On Sunday and Monday, when as many as 60 fires were burning and more than a dozen were out of control, the smoke created a haze over Quebec, eastern Ontario and much of the northeastern United States. The pollution was so thick on Sunday and Monday that Mainers could smell the fires, and air pollution levels got high enough to affect even otherwise healthy people.
“On Monday, things were very high. Western sections actually reached unhealthy levels,” said DEP air quality forecaster Martha Webster. “It is very unusual.”
Both the DEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued air pollution alerts for Maine on Wednesday based on forecasts that pollution levels would rise again. An apparent wind shift caused smoke levels to drop off through the day in Maine, however, Webster said. “I think things should be much better for Maine (today).”
The fresh air comes as welcome relief for many Mainers, especially those with asthma, COPD or some other lung or heart condition.
Hospital officials and physicians said the smoky air early this week did not cause any noticeable increase in medical emergencies, although they were busy warning sensitive patients to stay indoors or avoid exertion.
“If you’re sick, it can set things off,” Sears said. “We’re just warning people to take precautions.”
The sky was noticeably bluer above Back Cove in Portland Wednesday afternoon despite a slight haze on the horizon.
Katie Nee of Scarborough enjoyed the relatively fresh air while sitting next to the cove and said she was relieved to no longer smell the smoke. Nee has a 13-year-old son with asthma who had to be especially careful. “He hasn’t really shown any effects, but I was worried about him,” she said.
Sarah Francoeur of Portland took advantage of the cleaner air while walking her dog, Mollie, around Back Cove. Francoeur said she and her coworkers even smelled and felt the effects of the smoke while indoors early this week.
“It was giving me headaches,” she said. “We had to shut all the windows.”
The American Lung Association of New England issued its own alert in addition to the government warnings.
“We’re learning that these kinds of fine particulates have health effects at levels that we once thought were safe,” said Ed Miller, director of the association’s Maine chapter. “It’s not unlike exposure to second-hand (cigarette) smoke on a very large basis. It’s obviously more serious for people who have lung disease or heart disease, but it can be a problem for anybody.”
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: