Canadian wildfire haze lingers over Adirondacks

Main Street, Saranac Lake, is seen here draped in smoke on June 6. (Enterprise photo — Lauren Yates)

A thick layer of smoke from wildfires burning in central and northern Quebec, which blanketed the region in recent days, delayed rain that was expected to clean the air of soot on Monday and grew even thicker on Tuesday, reaching levels that researcher Scott McKim called “off the charts.”

McKim, the science manager at the University at Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at the summit of Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington, provided the Enterprise with graphs showing that black carbon in the air reached up to 2,000 nanograms per cubic meter on Tuesday. It had been at zero two days earlier. This topped record levels that were previously set when a similar thick haze of smoke from fires in Canada draped the region in July 2021.

This time, these fires are closer — hundreds of miles away instead of thousands.

In 2021, black carbon, or soot, was measured at 1,780 nanograms per cubic meter. Richard Brandt, the center’s science manager at the time, said he had never seen so much black carbon in the air in his decade of work there.

“It’s pretty bad,” McKim said on Tuesday.

He also shared graphs showing particulate matter of 2.5 nanometers in width at around 170 micrograms per cubic meter, compared to around 35 two days earlier; and carbon monoxide spiking to over 1,000 parts per billion from a typical baseline of around 300 ppb.

Sensors at the base and summit of Whiteface Mountain also showed spikes in all gasses on Monday, McKim said, with particulate matter of 2.5 nanometers in width, black carbon and measurements of 4,000 particles per cubic centimeter. These levels are typically in the hundreds, so this is very high, McKim said.

This thick layer of low-atmosphere smoke cast a yellow hue over everything as light from the sun was tinted by the pollution.

Smoke delays water

The smoke is very visible because the weather has been very dry. The last measurable precipitation McKim recorded was on May 24. He said sensors at the mountain recorded a trace amount of rain on Tuesday morning — less than one 100th of an inch.

“It basically did nothing to clean out the skies,” he said.

The good news, he said, is that shower activity was expected to increase Tuesday night, and due to changing winds and atmospheric pressures, the Adirondacks should not be in the trajectory of the smoke clouds for much longer.

McKim said people watching the weather might have noticed that the forecasts in recent days have consistently been calling for showers, but they’ve never materialized. That’s actually because of the smoke itself. It delays the rain.

“The smoke kind of acts like clouds and it’s really reduced the surface heating,” McKim said.

More heat means more rising air. Rising air is needed to condense water vapor and create rain.

“All that moisture is here, but we never got that mass lift,” McKim said, which made the region miss the showers it was supposed to get Tuesday morning.

He said National Weather Service forecasters in Burlington, Albany, Buffalo and Binghamton have been saying they’re having a really difficult time resolving their predictions with the smoke.

“For forecasters out in this west, this is old hat. … This isn’t something we deal with very often,” McKim said.

He said regional forecasters have been learning on the fly how to account for such high levels of smoke.

McKim said the smoke, which mimics high cirrus clouds, likely made high temperatures 5 to 10 degrees cooler than they would be otherwise.

Quebec fires are “out of control”

It is earlier in the season than normal for them to be seeing wildfire smoke, McKim said Monday. Most of these fires were caused by lightening strikes over the weekend. He said these fires are burning lots of peat which gives off a lot of smoke.

The Associated Press reports that more than 14,000 Quebec residents have been evacuated from their homes as more than 160 fires burn, with at least 114 classified as being “out of control.”

Quebec Premier Franois Legault told reporters on Monday that Quebec’s 480 wilderness firefighters are equipped to fight “around 30 fires” at one time. Meanwhile, the country’s other provinces have their hands full with fires of their own.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Tuesday that the state Department of Environmental Conservation had deployed a forest ranger to Quebec to assist in the firefighting. This is the first time New York has done this since wildfires in Quebec in 2005.

McKim said for the past month there have been fires in the province of Alberta, which is further away, so the smoke from those has stayed in the upper atmosphere. Then there were some wildfires in Nova Scotia for several days last week.

The AP reports that more than 400 fires were burning across Canada on Monday afternoon, and that Quebec’s wildfire prevention agency, SOPFEU reported that more than 427,492 acres in Quebec’s “intensive protection fire zone” have burned this year. This is compared with a 10-year average of 610 acres as of the same date.

Last summer, McKim said, was a reprieve for wildfire smoke on the East Coast. There were still many wildfires in the west, but the winds were not sending their smoke this way.

Health alerts

The state departments of Health and Environmental Conservation have been issuing Air Quality Health Advisories for the Adirondacks and other regions of the state for fine particulate matter exceeding an Air Quality Index value of 100. These levels can be the same indoors with sources like tobacco smoking, candle or incense burning, or fumes from cooking.

The state classifies this as “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” For these groups, the state suggests avoiding strenuous activities at these times. But there’s no reason for serious concern.

“There is a low probability that wildfire smoke near the surface leads to adverse health effects to sensitive populations,” according to an alert from the National Weather Service.

High particulate matter can exacerbate existing respiratory issues, like asthma and heart disease, or among children and the elderly.

McKim also said this smoke coincides with high levels of pine pollen, which can contribute to irritate the lungs of people who are allergic to the pollen.

“Exposure can cause short-term health effects such as irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath,” a DEC press release reads. “People with heart or breathing problems, and children and the elderly may be particularly sensitive.”

Staying indoors may reduce exposure, according to the state.

The health advisory area in New York shifted on Tuesday to areas outside the North Country.


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