Western & Canadian Wildfires Create Hazy Skies Across the Northwoods

Jul 14, 2021

Wildfire smoke makes for hazy sunrise over a lake near Boulder Junction Sunday morning.
Credit Jared Kropidlowski

The skies over parts of Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula haven’t been quite as blue were used to lately.

Wildfire smoke trapped in the upper atmosphere has created a haze.

Trent Wickman is an air resource specialist for the National Forest Service. He’s based in Duluth and studies air quality in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

“The northern parts of these three states is generally some of the cleanest in the entire eastern United States,” said Wickman.

Smoke produced by the Bootleg Fire that's burning more than 200,000 acres in Oregon right now. It's the currently the largest active wildfire in the U.S.
Credit National Forest Service

Wickman said the haze is created by the smoke from dozens of wildfires throughout the western U.S., Canada, and Minnesota.

“It’s very dry in northern Minnesota right now and in southern Canada. There’s some fire activity in that area,” said Wickman. “Then also there’s a lot of fire activity out west and more recently in Montana. If you look at some websites and look and see where all that smoke is mixing together and coming our direction.”

Wickman is referring to the Fire and Smoke map website.

Dozens of little fire icons represent active wildfires. Shades of gray sweep across the map representing how the smoke moves. Circles and squares of green, yellow, orange, and red are air quality monitors in different locations across the U.S.

Just because there’s smoke over where you live, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impacting the air quality, though it can contribute to the haze you see.  

“Some of the overlay on that website that you’re looking at is an interpretation of what people see from sattillites. They see smoke on the satellites and that’s what gets drawn on the map, but a lot of time that smoke it up high. It’s not at ground level where we live. Even though there’s smoke up there, we’re not breathing it.”

A screenshot of the fire and smoke map website that shows how wildfire produce smoke that moves across North America and impacts air quality.

While the smoke has mostly been staying up high, it can and has dropped lower.

Last week, the Iron and Gogebic County Sheriff’s Offices were getting calls from people concerned the haze and smell of smoke was from a local wildfire.

There have been a couple of occasions where the air quality has dropped slightly to the moderate category.

Wickman said in other times where we’ve seen wildfire smoke, the air quality has dropped even lower.

That’s when people in sensitive groups need to be more concerned about their health.

“Folks with cardiovascular, respiratory issues our senior citizens and younger folks are the ones that would be most sensitive. It’s just having an awareness to know are you in that sensitive group or do you know somebody in your family in that sensitive group. Those are the people should pay attention and take a look at the air quality monitoring data that we have out there,” said Wickman.

According to the EPA, the biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles.

These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs.

They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to chronic heart and lung diseases.

It’s not as major of a concern for those of us living in the Midwest as compared to those living out west.

We tend to only experience the smoke impact for a short amount of time and only a couple times a year, but Wickman said it’s possible this will become a more common occurrence.

“There are documented increases in fire activity for sure in the Western United States. That smoke comes here. It goes all the way across the country. To the degree that that continues to increase as it has been that would make these types of things more frequent in our part of the country too,” said Wickman.