Smoke blown from wildfires in the North Carolina mountains could make Charlotte’s air unhealthy for people with breathing problems.
The local air quality index early Friday morning was Code Orange, meaning concentrations of fine particles from smoke could exacerbate asthma and other respiratory conditions. By 11:30 a.m., conditions had improved to a moderate Code Yellow.
“If you can see heavy haze and smell smoke, then air quality is not good and you should limit your outdoor activities,” Mike Abraczinskas, deputy director of the state Air Quality Division, said in a statement. “This is particularly important for sensitive groups – that is, children, older adults, people with heart and respiratory problems, and those who work and exercise outside for extended times."
A guide the state posted this week equates smoke’s effects on air quality to visibility. Visibility of 3 to 5 miles means air quality is Code Orange, as it is in Charlotte. Visibility of 1 to 3 miles means the outdoor air is unhealthy for everybody.
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“The issue is mostly for people who have any kind of chronic respiratory condition like asthma or emphysema. We generally recommend that they stay indoors and not go out in the open air,” said Mecklenburg County health director Marcus Plescia.
The general population is probably not threatened, he said, unless they develop symptoms such as shortness of breath or sore throat that could indicate a sensitivity to fine particles.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said Friday morning that they did not expect the smoke and haze to impact air travel in Charlotte, but they did advise travelers to check with their carrier to make sure flights were on time.
Organizers of this weekend’s Charlotte Marathon said Friday that they do not expect the wildfire smoke to impact the Saturday event, which includes a marathon, half-marathon, 5K run/walk, marathon relay and a kids 1 mile fun run. It draws participants from around the United States.
The N.C. Cooperative Extension sent out a warning Friday that the smoke should be considered a danger to livestock and other animals.
“While the fires are impacting only relatively small areas, smoke is widespread throughout the region causing concern among most livestock producers,” said Dr. Matt Poore of N.C. Cooperative Extension. “Exposure to smoke can stress the respiratory system to the point that it turns into respiratory disease even several weeks after exposure.”
WBTV weather forecaster Al Conklin says the smoke drifted into the Charlotte area overnight. Winds are calm and there is virtually no chance of rain over the next week, so expect it to stick around.
Firefighters are worried that the predicted winds for Friday and continuing dry conditions will spread the fires.
More than 80 major wildfires are burning across the Southeast, including 18 in the North Carolina mountains that are forcing people from their homes, filling the air with smoke and ash, and lighting up the nights with what one resident calls a volcanic glow.
Fire has scorched more than 20,000 acres in the western part of the state since Oct. 23, the flames fed by trees, leaves and understory that are dry as kindling because of severe drought in the region. Fire officials are stretched thin by what they say is a historic outbreak, and while they don’t know the causes of all the fires, they are investigating some as possible arson.
At South Mountain State Park in Burke County, Rangers said more than 300 acres are burning, reports the Observer’s news partner WBTV. The Forest Service said they have it 40 percent contained.
About 20 miles away in Morganton, residents said they started to smell and see the smoke Thursday evening.
Several state parks in western North Carolina have been closed to allow additional staff and resources to be deployed to fight wildfires in South Mountains State Park and in and around Chimney Rock State Park, the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation announced Friday.
In addition to those parks, where fires have burned approximately 1,000 acres in both locations, the division has closed New River, Gorges, Elk Knob, Lake James and Mount Mitchell state parks and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area.
People planning to visit other state parks in the western part of the state are advised to check the division's web site at http://www.ncparks.gov/ before making the trip. The parks will reopen when the fires are contained or extinguished and staff are able to return to their assigned parks. A handful of staff will remain on duty in the closed parks for security purposes.
“It is never an easy decision to close parks, but our utmost priority is the protection of life and property in the parks and the surrounding communities,” Mike Murphy, director of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, said. “The dedicated park rangers, maintenance staff and other staff from our agency are working diligently and cooperatively with partner agencies and the local communities as part of this effort.”
The division has also expanded its burning ban on all fire, including charcoal, to all parks west of Interstate 95.