Iowa hit with 'unprecedented' air quality as haze from Canadian wildfires blankets state

Much of Iowa was blanketed with haze this week as smoke from Canadian wildfires filtered into the state, causing "unprecedented" air quality indices, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Advisories were in effect through Wednesday, with eastern Iowa hit with some of the worst air quality in the Midwest. Cedar Rapids saw its air quality index rise to 267 on Tuesday afternoon, the highest in the state.

The air quality index in Iowa City as of Wednesday morning was at a “very unhealthy” level of 224, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's AirNow.gov, down from a high of 247 the day prior. Central Iowa was listed as very unhealthy Wednesday morning but improved slightly to unhealthy by the noon hour.

More: How bad is breathing in wildfire smoke? Graphics show how toxic air affects your health

AirNow, home of the U.S. Air Quality Index, recommended residents limit or avoid physical activity outdoors, stay inside and use air conditioning. Prolonged exposure to such irritants can cause headache, irritate eyes, fatigue, difficulty breathing, chest pains, coughing, and even asthma attacks, according to Iowa Homeland Security & Emergency Management.

A runner makes his way though waterworks park as a smoky haze surrounds downtown Des Moines on Wednesday, June 28, 2023. The smoke from Canadian Canadian wildfires has drifted into the upper Midwest US prompting air quality warnings.
A runner makes his way though waterworks park as a smoky haze surrounds downtown Des Moines on Wednesday, June 28, 2023. The smoke from Canadian Canadian wildfires has drifted into the upper Midwest US prompting air quality warnings.

In the 24 years that Todd Russell has tracked excessive air quality readings for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, he has never seen the levels inhaled by Iowans this week, calling it unprecedented in both the extent and longevity.

"Possibly fireworks are about the only thing that's been this high," he said. "And, of course with fireworks, it's short term."

Air quality advisories in central Iowa were set to expire at the end of the day Wednesday. Late afternoon, the DNR extended the advisory for eastern Iowa, east of Interstate 35, through Friday.

With July Fourth around the corner, he said poor air quality could return from both the Canadian wildfires and fireworks smoke, though it's too unpredictable to know now.

The airnow.gov map provides real-time air quality numbers, and the approximation of the extent and trajectory can be seen at fire.airnow.gov/.

More: Hazy skies strike again: Iowa sees air quality advisory as Canadian wildfire smoke returns

What is causing the poor air quality in Iowa?

Fires in northern Quebec and low pressure over the eastern Great Lakes sent smoke through the Great Lakes region and in parts of central and eastern United States, said Bryan Jackson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported Monday that 29,393 square miles of land including forests has burned across Canada since Jan. 1. That exceeds the previous record set in 1989 of 29,187 square miles, according to the National Forestry Database.

More: Midwesterners are seeing smoke again, NY is next: How you can prepare your home.

Nationally, there are currently 490 fires burning, with 255 of them considered to be out of control.

The AirNow.gov site showed parts of Illinois, lower Michigan and southern Wisconsin had the worst air quality in the U.S. on Tuesday afternoon, and Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee had air quality categorized as “very unhealthy."

A person crosses Clinton Street as smoke from wildfires in Canada fills the air, Wednesday, June 28, 2023, in Iowa City, Iowa.
A person crosses Clinton Street as smoke from wildfires in Canada fills the air, Wednesday, June 28, 2023, in Iowa City, Iowa.

The smoke is the result of wildfires caused by climate change, because the warmer, dryer climate that exists today helps ripen conditions for fires to occur, said Peter Thorne, professor in the University of Iowa College of Public Health’s Department of Occupational & Environmental Health.

“This is just what the models have been forecasting for years and years,” Thorne said. “So it's no surprise to those of us who study climate change and health to see these events occurring.”

What should I do when the air quality is bad?

Some cities in Iowa took precautions as the air quality remained poor. Iowa City chose to close the City Park Pool on Wednesday due to poor air quality. The indoor pool held extended open swim hours throughout the day to accommodate the outdoor closure.

Polk County activated its extreme temperature plan, and DART was providing free rides to cooling centers at public libraries and other places.

Thorne said much of Iowa's air quality should be considered unhealthy for all groups, but especially those with additional medical conditions such as asthma or lung disease.

The smoky air is made of particulate matter, he said, known as PM2.5. Once air quality reaches 100 on the air quality index, it’s harmful to those groups with chronic conditions, but after the index reaches 150, everyone is impacted.

“That's when we advise people to stay indoors if they can, with the house or building closed (up),” Thorne said. “And if they're going out to wear a mask and try not to exercise outdoors in those conditions.”

A person follows through on their golf swing at a driving range as smoke from Canadian wildfires fills the air, Wednesday, June 28, 2023, at Finkbine Golf Course in Iowa City, Iowa.
A person follows through on their golf swing at a driving range as smoke from Canadian wildfires fills the air, Wednesday, June 28, 2023, at Finkbine Golf Course in Iowa City, Iowa.

Residents were strongly urged to limit all physical outdoor activities, and if symptoms were to arise, head indoors immediately. Sensitive groups, such as persons with heart or lung disease as well as older adults, teens, and children, were told to avoid any outdoor physical activity.

Airnow.gov recommends establishing a “clean air room” inside the home.

Thorne also recommended people run their furnace fans regardless of whether the air conditioning system is on so that the air within the house continues to circulate. Many buildings, Thorne said, allow outside air in, either on purpose or by accident, so continuing to cycle air through the air filter will help to clean any potentially dirty outside air entering someone’s home or work environment.

Thorne recommends utilizing a high-efficiency particulate air filter, if available, to ensure the air is being thoroughly filtered. Those filters are recommended to those nearest to wildfires, he said.

“Particularly for people who are in those sensitive categories — people with asthma, people with heart disease, COPD, people who, for one reason or another have had frail health — it's very much advisable to be running air purifiers,” Thorne said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Noelle Alviz-Gransee is a breaking news reporter at the Des Moines Register. Follow her on Twitter @NoelleHannika or email her atNAlvizGransee@registermedia.com.

Ryan Hansen covers local government and crime for the Press-Citizen. He can be reached at rhansen@press-citizen.com or on Twitter @ryanhansen01.

This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: Iowa hit with 'unprecedented' air quality from Canadian wildfires