Northwest U.S. wildfires are causing hazy skies and poor air quality across Kansas. Here's what to know.

Brianna Childers
Topeka Capital-Journal
The smoky haze created by wildfires burning in the northwestern part of the United States has caused hazy skies and poor air quality in Topeka.

Topekans have been dealing with heat stress and a surge in delta-fueled COVID-19 cases

Poor air quality can now be added to the list.

Hazy skies have moved into the Topeka area because of wildfires burning in the northwestern portion of the country.

According to National Fire Interagency Center, there are 90 fires burning across 12 states. More than 1.8 million acres have been burned.

Topeka's air quality at 2 p.m. Monday reached 134 on the air quality index, making it unhealthy for sensitive groups to be outdoors. That would include individuals with heart or lung disease, children, elderly people and pregnant women.

According to AirNow, Topeka's air quality began declining early Sunday morning and peaked at 163 during the afternoon, pushing the air quality into the "unhealthy" category.

Why are the skies hazy?

The fires burning in the northwestern portion of the United States are resulting in a large volume of smoke and particulate matter that is entering the air stream and moving east, said Alan Stahl, Topeka Fire's public education officer.

Particulate matter, Stahl said, is fine burned debris or ash.

Those elements are causing Topeka's hazy skies.

"Everything that's burning in that forest is now being transported to us," Stahl said. "If you think about it that way, it's like being on the receiving end of a horrible campfire but we're halfway across the United States from it."

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How does the poor air quality affect us?

The good news, Stahl said, is the matter is wood and natural materials. But any particles people breathe into their lungs can cause problems.

"Everybody reacts a little bit different to that," Stahl said. "Some people it could really irritate their lungs just depending on if they have allergies to trees, if they have asthmatic problems of other types. All of those things factor in."

Individuals working outdoors should listen to their bodies and sensitive groups should remain indoors as much as possible.

"Individuals working outside may be experiencing shortness of breath, a tightness of the chest, increased coughing, fatigue or headache," said Craig Barnes, division manager of the Community Health Outreach and Planning department. "Air pollution can also cause irritation of the eyes and nose as well as a sore throat."

Individuals with asthma or COPD may find they are using their medications more often, Barnes said.

"Because of the strain on the heart, the development of heart attacks and/or irregular heartbeat also increase in times of poor air quality," Barnes said.

Businesses that rely on their employees working primarily outdoors may need to find alternate work when air quality is poor.

Clay Adams, KDOT's field operations director, said the agency monitors air conditions and if employees with health conditions are at risk of being impacted, KDOT will find alternate work for them that requires less exertion.

"At this point, we are not aware of any issues and the forecast at this time is for the air quality to improve as we go through the week," Adams said.

Recommendations on how to remain safe outdoors when air quality is poor include wearing a mask. In this case, Stahl said, the particles are too small for a mask to be effective.

"There's not a great way to avoid it," Stahl said.

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How long will the hazy skies and poor air quality last?

Hazy skies could last until Thursday and possibly into the weekend, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Drake.

Drake said upper-level winds will push the smoke to the east, but the transition will be slow.

"It's been better now today because we don't have as much moisture in the air for stuff to collect on," Drake said. "That's why visibilities been a little bit better."

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How does this differ from hazy skies caused by annual Flint Hills burn?

Kansans are familiar with poor air conditions. In the spring, the Flint Hills are burned leading to poor air quality and hazy skies.

Stahl said it is difficult to compare the conditions caused by the Flint Hills burning and wildfires out west.

"The Flint Hills will definitely be worse because depending on the wind direction and the conditions being closer to the fire, more particulate is going to fall, more of that smoke," Stahl said.

The smell of smoke lingers in the air and Kansans are more likely to be affected by the air quality due to the proximity of the Flint Hill's burn.

"The materials we are getting now, they're bad," Stahl said, "but they're not as bad as it could be."