Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, even if the flames are more than 3,000 miles away.

The air across Maine has seen a large decline in quality over the past three days because of smoke drifting from intense wildfires on the West Coast, according to authorities.

The air quality in Maine is deemed “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” according to AirNow, which works with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal organizations to monitor air quality across the country.

Sensitive groups include people with lung or heart disease, older adults, children and pregnant women. The air quality first switched from “good” to “moderate” on Tuesday morning and reached its peak harshness at 6 p.m. that day.

Margaret Curtis, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Gray, said the increase in smoke in the state is extreme.

“This specific outbreak that we’ve had in the past couple days has been one of the worst,” she said. “It really restricts the air quality.”


Curtis emphasized that for those who fall in the sensitive group, the air quality can be especially harmful.

“For folks who have asthma or any other health concerns, they should be taking it easy in any sort of activity like running,” she said. In addition, if those who are at risk feel “tightness” or anything like that, she recommended they head indoors.

Of the 108,277 people in Androscoggin County, 12,356 of them have some form of asthma, according to the American Lung Association. An additional 43,979 are at risk because of their age, with thousands more fitting into the sensitive group because of various lung and heart issues.

The American Lung Association also reported that of the 30,199 residents in Franklin County, at least 17,967 are technically at risk. Of Oxford County’s 57,975 residents, at least 34,707 are at risk.

Wildfires caused by climate change are a public health issue, Will Barrett, the senior director of advocacy and clean air at the American Lung Association, said Wednesday.

The organization has created resources for those sensitive to poor air quality, and has made one of its focuses combating wildfires because of the damage smoke inhalation has on the human body.


“Lung health is impacted by a lot of factors, including air pollution,” he said. “If you can see or smell smoke then you’re being exposed to particle pollution.”

Particle pollution, which is what makes the air quality worse, is made up of tiny bits of material such as ash, soot, dust and smoke. The particles are so small that they can get through the human body’s natural defenses and into the lungs, Barrett said.

Effects can include “minor irritation, wheezing, shortness of breath, (and) coughing,” but they can also trigger “asthma attacks, cause heart attacks and strokes,” he said.

This is not the first time this year smoke has been an issue in the state, according to Martha Webster of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

“We’ve had a number of days earlier in spring where we believe smoke from agricultural fires attributed to worse air quality in Maine,” she said. Though the state has faced this issue in the past, Webster, who works in air quality forecasting, said this spread is bad.

“Smoke, especially with levels at this magnitude, is something that has not occurred in many years at Maine,” she said. “Staff did our best to try to forecast as accurately as we could with limited information.”


It’s only the start of fire season, Webster warned, and it is unclear if the air quality will get worse.

“It is concerning to me that we are seeing such high values at the beginning of the season,” she said, though the smoke being brought in from the West might not matter if the environment doesn’t bring it down to the surface.

“It can be a bad fire season out West, but if it doesn’t have the winds to bring it to the East then it doesn’t as much affect us,” she said. “It all depends on the transport winds. The weather conditions locally either bring it down to the surface where we are impacted or keep it above.”

On Tuesday, the air quality was declared unhealthy for sensitive groups by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Webster said, “definitely the smoke was brought down to the surface.”

By Wednesday the smoke began to clear out in the northern regions of Maine, and the department stated that though “particle pollution can take a little while longer to clean out,” an expected “movement of weather systems will bring in cleaner air.”

Though it can be difficult, Webster hopes that her team’s forecasting proves correct.


“We do try our best to protect people’s health as much as we can,” she said. “We are doing that within guidelines from the (federal Environmental Protection Agency) as well as to the best of our ability, because forecasting is not a direct science. We have a lot of experience and try our best, but don’t have a lot of experience at this magnitude.”

Barrett, who spends his time advocating for climate change laws and policies, believes there are many ways that everyone can help reduce the threat of climate change, and therefore wildfires.

“Anything from the vehicles we drive to the way we heat our homes, to supporting policies that reduce harmful pollution,” he said. One of the key ways, he said, is paying attention to air quality alerts. When it says the quality is down, he recommends staying inside.

Information on the area’s air quality can be found at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s website, or on Enviroflash. AirNow also provides an interactive map that can be used to track fires and air quality here.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: