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Wildfire smoke is detrimental to human health. Its impact on the Northwoods environment is a bit more hazy.

The haze in the distance is cause by wildfire smoke drifting south from Canada.
Katie Thoresen
The haze in the distance is cause by wildfire smoke drifting south from Canada.

This is the second summer in three years where the normally pristine air quality of the Northwoods has taken a nosedive.

Nineteen of the 30 days in June air quality in the Northwoods registered as moderate or worse.

Both this year and in 2021, smoke from wildfire hundreds of miles away have caused air quality here to drop.

Trent Wickman is familiar with wildfire smoke from his time working on smoke forecasts for large fires out west.

“Up until 2021 I never had seen anything like that back here. But then in 2021 was the first time where we did see that kind of smoke. Now this summer we’re seeing that kind of thing happening again,” said Wickman.

Wickman is now an air resource specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan and is based in Duluth.

He says there could be multiple factors as to why we’ve been experiencing wildfire smoke more so in recent years.

Canada has been dealing with drought conditions that lead to more and bigger fires.

According to reporting by the New York Times, the country doesn’t do as many prescribed burns which can help prevent larger fires.

The other is simply how remote these fires are.

“If you just look on the map, they’re very much in an area where there is no access. There’s no roads. They’re just in ‘wilderness’. There’s not as many options to try to put out fires. The Canadians aren’t going to put lives at risk just to protect trees generally. It’s going to need to be a fire that’s threatening some kind of structure, something like that,” said Wickman.

As the world warms and droughts become more common, it’s likely the Northwoods will experience more smoky summers.

The human health impact of poor air quality has been well documented. It leads to respiratory and cardiovascular issues.

Wickman says we’re still learning about its potential impact on the environment in the Northwoods.

“Animals breathe air like we do. So it just goes that you would think they’d be susceptible also. I don’t know if they’re susceptible at the same levels we are,” said Wickman. “As far as impacts to water chemistry and things like, I think that’s going to be pretty hard for us to tease out of the data with all the other potential sources of the same chemicals that fires put up. A little hard to tease that out, but you never know. That’s why do long-term monitoring because sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know and down the road, you see things you didn’t expect.”

While researchers try to figure out what impact the smoke has on things like water quality in the Northwoods, Wickman urges people to take air quality advisories seriously.

“When it comes to smoke, I think the first thing you need to think about is human health and human impacts,” said Wickman.

You can view air quality monitors and smoke plumes on the AirNow website.

Wickman recommended this EPA Toolkit for how to best protect yourself when the air quality does drop.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.