It is officially wildfire season, and with fire, there is smoke. People living in Weston County and the surrounding area have gotten their first breath of wildfire smoke over the past week as Canadian wildfires, coupled with wind patterns, have blown smoke in and out of the area since late last week.
Because of the smoke, the National Weather Service in Rapid City has issued several air-quality statements, and the local high school quickly made arrangements to share last weekend’s graduation ceremony online out of concern for people whose health was threatened by the haze.
On May 18, the special weather statement warned that “smoke from Canadian wildfires will continue to affect the air quality and visibility across northeastern Wyoming and western South Dakota.”
It noted that while some improvements in conditions were expected by Friday, smoke would linger across the area.
On Thursday, when conditions were at their worst, Air Quality Index NowCast’s reading for Newcastle was at 177, or “unhealthy air quality.” The highest level on the AQI NowCast report is 500 or hazardous.
Despite the hope that the air quality would change, smoke moved back into the region on Sunday, and air quality was again at an unhealthy level. Because of this, Weston County School District No. 1 quickly set up a livestream option for the 2023 Newcastle High School graduation ceremony held on May 21.
“There were health concerns with the smoke. … As bad as the air quality got, we were worried about the elderly and people with breathing issues,” Superintendent Brad LaCroix told the News Letter Journal.
Fortunately, according to NowCast, air quality has improved this week, and was at a 50 or moderate as of May 22 at 4:30 p.m.
According to information provided by Weston County’s public health office, wildfire smoke is a “mix of gasses and fire particles from burning vegetation, building materials, and other materials.”
Breathing in smoke can make anyone sick, but individuals with certain illnesses and conditions can be more susceptible to issues caused by the smoke. These individuals include older adults, pregnant women, children and people with preexisting respiratory and heart conditions.
Health effects that may be immediate include coughing, trouble breathing normally, stinging eyes, a scratchy throat, runny nose, irritated sinuses, wheezing and shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, an asthma attack, tiredness and fast heartbeat, according to the provided information.
People can do several things to protect themselves from the smoke.
First, keep the smoke outside. People should choose a room they can close off from outside air and set up a portable air cleaner in said room.
Second, reduce your smoke exposure. Individuals concerned about the smoke should use a respirator when outside.
People should also avoid using candles, gas, propane, wood-burning stoves, fireplaces or aerosol sprays, and they should not fry or broil meat, smoke tobacco products or vacuum.
“If you have a central air conditioning system, use high-efficiency filters to capture fire particles from smoke. If your system has a fresh air intake, set the system to recirculate mode or close the outdoor intake damper,” the information says.
Anyone with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease or anyone who is pregnant should pay attention to any health symptoms and seek medical care if needed.
AQI NowCast air quality levels
101-150 unhealthy for sensitive groups
201-300 very unhealthy