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After unprecedented year of poor-quality air, Minnesota officials on alert for more of same

A state official referred to Northeast Minnesota's string of air quality alerts as "kind of astounding."

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Four water bombers, dwarfed by the Greenwood Fire, collect water from a lake on Aug. 23, 2021.
Contributed / Joe Thorne
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DULUTH — Staff at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are hoping not to see a repeat of last year, when it comes to air quality.

Matt Taraldsen, a meteorologist for the MPCA, referred to 2021 as “historic,” in terms of air quality index warnings.

“We’ve been issuing alerts since 2011, and last year was by far the busiest,” he said. Talaldsen explained that last year was challenging not only because of the number of events — mainly forest fires — that led to poor air quality. “But the severity, the duration and the scope was really unprecedented,” he said.

Much of the smoke that afflicted Minnesotans drifted south from Canada, where Taraldsen said fires burnt across an area equivalent to six times the size of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

“What was kind of astounding is that some areas of the state were under an air quality alert for almost 30 days consecutively,” he said, pointing to the Arrowhead, where a single alert lasted 705 hours — or 29 days and nine hours straight.

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Besides the Canadian fires, northern Minnesota contended with a number of its own fires, including the Greenwood fire, which Taraldsen recalled “was kind of tricky, because smoke was pooling over Lake Superior and then was being cycled back into the Duluth area.”

Forest fire satellite Aug 23 2021 4_21pm.jpg
This image from Aug. 23, 2021, shows the Greenwood Fire and other wildfires as seen from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite.
Contributed / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

While the state does not yet have any emergency room and medical admission statistics compiled relative to the health impacts of poor air quality last year, Jessie Shmool, an epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health, said, “We certainly heard a lot of anecdotal reports from individuals and from health care providers about aggravated asthma and other respiratory conditions.”

When that data does become available, however, Shmool said she fully expects to see an uptick in people seeking medical care due to poor air conditions.

“Looking at the literature and what we can see from other places where they looked at local wildfires, as well as where people experienced smoke from long-range transport, like we would get from Canada, there’s no reason to expect that the impacts here would be substantially different,” she said

The likely complications would include increased asthma attacks, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) complications and issues related to heart conditions in the two to three days following a high-smoke event, Shmool said.

She said the Minnesota Department of Health hopes to have closer to real-time data on health impacts in the near future.

“We're just not quite there yet. We know it’s of great interest to communities and our partners and to us as well. Those data help us to understand how we can be most effective in limiting health effects and where we can target our resources,” Shmool said.

Nick Witcraft, another MPCA meteorologist, said abundant snow and rain this year have reduced fire risks in Minnesota, with 2.1% of the state reporting drought conditions, as compared with 9.7% at the same time last year. A piece of Lake County is included in that drought area.

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But Witcraft warned against reading too much into current moisture levels, noting that the state’s drought conditions can worsen swiftly. For instance, at this time last year, he said Minnesota “was not that bad, in terms of drought,” historically speaking.

However, Witcraft said a very dry May and June caused drought conditions to spread and intensify.

As of last report at the beginning of April, drought conditions still persisted in southern Canada, but Witcraft noted that heavy snows have fallen there this month, moderating the fire risk.

For now, authorities admit it’s a bit of a game of wait and see what the fire season will bring. But they assured that efforts to monitor and promptly report air quality issues will remain a high priority.

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Related Topics: POLLUTIONDULUTHFIRESHEALTH
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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