DEM warns of unhealthy air quality from Nova Scotia wildfires

By: - May 30, 2023 3:44 pm

Satellite maps show smoke from wildfires in Halifax descending over Rhode Island Tuesday. (Courtesy Darren Austin)

That smoky haze hovering above the Ocean State today doesn’t just look or smell strange – it’s also potentially bad for your health.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management issued an air quality alert Tuesday morning, warning of unhealthy air quality due to plumes of wildfire smoke blowing southwest from Nova Scotia into Rhode Island. The warning, which is directed at people with preexisting medical conditions and other at-risk groups, lasts until 10 p.m. tonight. 

As of Tuesday mid-afternoon, the smoke had begun to lift slightly, though the high-pressure system remains, said Alan Dunham, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service out of Norton, Mass. How quickly the air clears depends on the wind force and direction as well as when the wildfires are extinguished, Dunham said. 

The National Weather Service forecasted that the eastern high-pressure system will remain “in control” through Wednesday.

Smoke from uncontrolled wildfires northwest of Halifax descended on Rhode Island suddenly Tuesday morning, with clear skies abruptly turning a cloudy white. Darren Austin, state meteorologist with DEM, said he also saw ash falling from the sky.

Simultaneously, readings measuring fine particles in the air spiked, with those in West Greenwich and Narragansett showing nearly twice as many micrograms of air pollutants per cubic meter as DEM considers to be within the healthy range, Austin said. 

Readings Tuesday afternoon showed unhealthy levels of particulates in the air due to Nova Scotia wildfires. (Courtesy Darren Austin)

“It’s a very powerful smoke, so we’re seeing numbers getting really high which can impact people’s breathing,” he said. 

DEM has advised people with respiratory problems to stay inside until the smoke clears, and also suggested use of N95 masks.

It’s not unusual from Canadian wildfires to affect Rhode Island, according to Austin. Seasonal, springtime fires combined with the correct pressure and wind systems can easily spread smoke to areas more than 2,500 miles away (far more than the 700 miles between Providence and Halifax). And historical data from DEM shows the levels of fine particulate matter and ozone concentrations have diminished over the last two decades.

What is changing is the temperature and rainfall patterns, which thanks in part to climate change, create perfect conditions for wildfires to start and spread. 

“It seems to be happening more and more over the last 10 years,” Austin said. “Things are warmer and drier and rainfall patterns are changing so it would make sense that this is something we are going to have to deal with more and more.

Tuesday marks the third air quality alert day DEM has issued so far this year. A similar warning was publicized for two-days in mid-April – around the same time, though not because of brush fires in Exeter – due to western Canadian wildfires.

The number of poor air quality days thus far this year is typical, though the April alerts were “unusually early” for the season, Austin said. 

He expected to see particle readings drop to the “low to moderate” range by 8 p.m. Tuesday, though some residual air quality issues will hang on for a bit longer.

“I do think it’s going to take a little time to wash out,” he said, adding that people with compromised immune systems may need inhalers or other breathing aids in that time.

A three-day air quality forecast is available on DEM’s website. 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.