SUNDAY, February 25, 2024

As wildfires burn in Canada, an unprecedented blanket of smoke hangs over Minnesota

As wildfires burn in Canada, an unprecedented blanket of smoke hangs over Minnesota

EDINA, Minn. - Perched atop the living room sofa, 4-year-old Ryan Reuvers peered out the window to his neighborhood in Edina, Minn.

The street - usually filled with people jogging or walking their dogs - was quiet. The typically blue skies were hazy, with a yellow-tinted gray hue. A campfire smell lingered.

As the state's frigid winter melted into warm summer days, Ryan's mother Colleen had filled her children's schedules with activities. There was nature camp, book buddies, tennis lessons and soccer practice - anything to occupy the time of two energetic toddlers who had just spent a year mostly cooped up indoors because of the pandemic.

Then came the smoke.

The Reuvers's neighborhood, about 10 miles from the Twin Cities, has been blanketed by a thick layer of it. Outside, the parks where children flocked stood quiet, the sun burned orange and a milky haze limited visibility.

Officials say the smoke, making its way from wildfires burning across the Canadian border, is unprecedented. They've warned that the "hazardous" levels of pollution across Minnesota will last until at least through Tuesday afternoon.

Ryan Stauffer, a researcher specializing in air pollution at NASA, said the impacts of the smoke have been exacerbated by the fact that the fumes are so low to the ground.

"The unique aspect of this event is that so much of the smoke is at the surface, creating highly polluted conditions and poor air quality," he said. "It is much more typical for smoke to remain well above the surface in the Midwest to Eastern United States."

The smoke engulfing Minnesota is remarkable in other aspects, Stauffer said. The dangerous air pollution - known as PM2.5 because the particles have a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns - was recorded in the Twin Cities area as 182 in the air quality index on Thursday. According to the NASA researcher, that is the highest value recorded there since data collection began in 1999.

"It is extremely unusual and the amount of smoke at the surface may be unprecedented in recent decades," Stauffer said.

The haze contains hundreds of pollutants, said Daniel Dix, a supervisor of the Minnesota Pollution and Control Agency's air quality team. These can have severe health impacts, particularly among older adults, teenagers and children, and especially to those with conditions such as asthma.

"These levels of particulates can be very irritating to the respiratory system, and they can also have impacts for people with heart disease as well," said Jessie Schmool, an epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health.

And as the majority of the state enters into the air quality index's red and purple categories, which denote unhealthy and very unhealthy levels respectively, between Saturday and Monday, state officials urge everyone - regardless of their age and health - to limit their air exposure.

"You wouldn't want to spend hours outdoors if you can help it," said Nicholas Witcraft, research scientist and meteorologist at the Minnesota Pollution and Control Agency. "When the concentrations of particles reach these levels, even healthy individuals start feeling effects."

In the Reuvers household, this means more days of peering through the window and getting crafty with art supplies indoors - "almost a throwback to quarantine." The toddlers' daily visit to the park has been suspended for now.

The family has had some experience staying in close quarters. In their short lives, Ryan and his 2-year-old sister Reagan have been through the coronavirus, harsh winters and now unprecedented pollution. Though this has inspired creativity and generated cherished moments of sharing, Reuvers said it had also invoked instances of restlessness.

"It can be hard to have days in a row where you're just kind of hunkered down in the house with little kids who don't understand why in the summer there's an issue with going outside," she said.

For now, a quick trip to McDonald's for milkshakes has replaced tumbling down the slide. A Lego set of the Daily Bugle, the fictional newspaper where Peter Parker worked before morphing into Spider-Man, brings son and father together, supplanting refreshing dips in the pool with "Gigi," the children's beloved grandmother.

Reuvers said she hopes the smoke will fade soon. But experts worry it might be a recurring trend with the planet's changing climate - of which the effects have taken different forms: from the ocean's oxygen levels plummeting in the Pacific Northwest to drought conditions quenching over 60% of the western United States.

As droughts and heat waves fuel a dire wildfire season throughout North America, dangerous smoke has become more common. With 87 infernos currently torching across 13 states, the effects of a changing climate can be felt thousands of miles away from the flames, from Minnesota to New York.

And wildfire season will last for several more months.

"It is hard to predict exactly what to expect in the next few weeks, but unfortunately, it is still very early in the Western U.S. and Canadian fire season," Stauffer, the NASA researcher, said.