Although wildfires-created smoke that has choked the Jacksonville area this week was expected to ease a little today, forecasters still are cautioning sensitive groups — such as children, the elderly and those with asthma or other conditions — to avoid prolonged time outdoors.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued a rare Air Quality Action Day for Jacksonville and the surrounding area Wednesday as smoke created a hazy, milky white blanket in the air. The smoke caused readings of particulate matter — particles of solids or liquids in the air that can affect health — to spike significantly.

At 7 a.m. Tuesday, the reading at monitors in Springfield was 46, or "good." By 7 a.m. Wednesday, the reading was an "unhealthy" 199, and by 9 a.m. it had risen to 237, putting it into the "very unhealthy" range.

That Air Quality Action Day alert expired late Wednesday, but projections still put air quality readings into a range of being unhealthy for some people.

"Smoke from wildfires in Canada has moved into the region, pushing air quality into the unhealthy or worse categories. The unique widespread nature of this episode prompted [the] alert," according to the National Weather Service.

The most significant impact throughout the day Wednesday was in Morgan, Cass, Menard, Sangamon, Scott and Schuyler counties, according to the weather service.

About 20 states were under air quality warnings Wednesday as smoke reached as far south as Georgia and as far east as New York.

Air quality is rated on a scale of zero to 500. Readings of zero to 50 are considered good, from 51 to 100 are moderate and from 101 to 150 are considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. The unhealthy zone starts at 151 and includes very unhealthy when the reading is from 201 to 300 and hazardous when it reaches from 301 to 500.

Conditions today in the Jacksonville area are expected to be in the "unhealthy for sensitive groups" category.

That means those with heart or lung diseases, older adults, children and teenagers, minority populations and outdoor workers should avoid long or intense outdoor activity, according to the National Weather Service. Others should reduce long or intense outdoor activity and take frequent breaks.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says smoke can have immediate health effects, including coughing, trouble breathing normally, stinging eyes and a scratchy throat. For some, exposure also can cause wheezing and shortness of breath, chest pains or headaches and can trigger an asthma attack. 

Older adults, pregnant women, children, and those with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions may be more likely to get sick if they breathe in wildfire smoke, according to the CDC.

Those who are susceptible should avoid smoking, burning candles or even vacuuming indoors, according to the CDC, because it can add to indoor pollution. Air filters with particle removal can help indoors. Outdoors, an N95-rated mask that is properly worn will offer some protection, but dust masks will not protect the lungs from smoke particles, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

There are nearly 500 wildfires burning in Canada, about half of which are out of control. Smoke from the fires — which the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center said have burned 19.5 million acres — has been pushed by wind patterns into the United States and even Europe. Smoke from wildfires began drifting into the U.S. on June 5 and intensified earlier this week.

Real-time air quality conditions are available at Smoke conditions and estimates are available at

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