Environment

The western NC wildfires are visible from space; record pollution in smoke plumes

Breathing in far southwestern North Carolina, outside anyway, is not advised because of pollution coming from a dozen wildfires. The NC Department of Environmental Quality has issued a Code Red, which means the conditions are unhealthy for everyone in Cherokee, Clay, Macon and Graham counties.

Some of the highest particle pollution ever measured by NC DEQ occurred in the smoke plumes, reaching the level of “very unhealthy” or Code Purple. Some of the areas near the wildfires also hit that mark.

High levels of particle pollution, also known as particulate matter or PM, can cause severe breathing problems even in healthy people. Fine PM, so small the particles can be seen only with an electron microscope, can burrow deep into the lungs. Even courser dust particles can be harmful. People with lung conditions — emphysema, asthma, for example — and heart problems could become quite ill.

At least 19,000 acres of forest have burned in western North Carolina, the result of a dozen wildfires afflicting the drought-stricken region. NASA released satellite imagery showing the extent of the smoke.

Cherokee and Clay counties are now designated as an exceptional drought areas, the most severe classification.

DEQ Director of Air Quality Sheila Holman told the Environmental Management Commission this afternoon that the agency is sending more portable monitoring equipment to the mountain region. Sylva is scheduled to receive it today.

Since most of us don’t have air quality monitors stashed in the basement, there are several ways to gauge whether the air is unhealthy. One, obviously, is that if it’s hard to breathe, then the air is bad. If the smoke is so thick that you can’t see more than one mile, that indicates the air has reached Code Purple. Even in the range of one to three miles, the air is unhealthy.

A table showing air quality levels, from good to hazardous.

(Table courtesy of NC DEQ)

Several mountain areas below 4,000 feet mountain are Code Orange. Conditions are not expected to improve tomorrow.

The first fire was reported in early October, as Hurricane Matthew hit the other side of the state. Now there are more than a dozen fires spreading through the region.

This is prime hiking season in the mountains, but the fires have closed trails, roads and campgrounds throughout the mountains. There is a total burn ban in most of the region. Yesterday parts of Hayesville were evacuated.

 

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