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Air quality in Vermont reached 'very unhealthy' with latest smoke impacts

Smoke haze on Aldis Street in St. Albans on June 25, 2023.
Stephen Miller
Smoke haze on Aldis Street in St. Albans on June 25, 2023.

Smoke from wildfires in Northern Quebec and Ontario made air quality in northern Vermont exceptionally bad at the start of the week.

Air quality in Burlington was rated at "very unhealthy" by the EPA's standards for most of Sunday night into Monday morning.

The Vermont Dept. of Environmental Conservation's Air Quality and Climate Division reported that Burlington may have set a new record for Vermont, for the primary pollutant of concern for human health in wildfire smoke, but the department is still analyzing the data.

But as of Monday evening, smoke conditions — at least in Vermont — had improved, and that's expected to continue through Wednesday.

Canada is on track to have a record fire season. As of Monday, nearly 30 fires in Quebec were considered "out of control." That's actually an improvement over earlier in the month.

And while climate change is increasing the risk of major wildfires like these ones in Quebec and across North America, Canadian scientists told NPR that Quebec's boreal forests burned regularly in the past, and fire is a part of the ecosystem there.

The National Weather Service says this latest bout of poor air quality in Vermont was due to changing wind patterns — not a change in the wildfires themselves or how much particulate matter they're emitting.

"The indications of some of the computer models is we clear out for the rest of today, tomorrow and Wednesday, for the most part," said Scott Whittier, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Burlington. "And then there's some indications that the smoke may try to make an entrance again later on in the week."

The skies cleared Tuesday as winds shifted back to the south, not because the severity of fires lessened.

Whittier says it's too soon to tell how severe that smoke will be later in the week.

He says the proximity of these fires and their intensity are making the smoke unusually intense here. As long as they burn, Vermont could see air quality impacts when the winds are from the north.

David Grass, the senior environmental health program manager at Vermont Department of Health, recommends Vermonters track air quality during these events using the EPA' resource.

A chart showing poor air quality in Burlington overnight on June 26, with the worst impacts peaking at 2 AM.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
Burlington saw its worst air quality at about 2 AM. on June 26.

It ranks air quality by colors — with orange being the place where vulnerable populations should consider taking steps to reduce their exposure. At red and purple, where Burlington's air quality was Sunday night, even low-risk adults can experience symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath from over-exposure.

Teenagers, pregnant people, older people, and those with asthma are particularly vulnerable to poor air quality, as are people with heart disease or lung disease and those who work outside or are experiencing homelessness.

"If you're in one of those sensitive groups, it's important that you start taking action when air quality is in that orange range," Grass said.

Grass says reducing the intensity of outdoor exercise when you can, using a HEPA filter in your house, and using air conditioning instead of keeping the windows open are a few ways to reduce your exposure to smoke.

Where that is not possible, the EPA says wearing a KN95 or P100 mask can also help. Cloth masks don't work because the particulate matter of concern in wildfire smoke is so small.

Smoke haze reddens the sun, as seen from Colchester on June 25, 2023.
Haley LaBonte-Davey
Vermont Public
Smoke haze reddens the sun, as seen from Colchester on June 25, 2023.

Additionally, people who have asthma should carry their medication with them during these events.

But ultimately, Grass says more solutions are needed to support people experiencing homelessness or people who work outside during these events.

"Making those types of recommendations is tricky for me, because it's an equity issue," Grass said. "Not everybody has access to an air filter in their home. Not everybody has access to a place inside their home where they can, you know, limit the intake from outside air and feel safe being there. People who are experiencing homelessness don't have the luxury of having an indoor space they can retire to."

Grass says that like on days with extreme heat — another phenomenon Vermont is poised to see more of with climate change — it's the most vulnerable people and often those who have historically been marginalized who are most impacted by smoke.

He says being hospitable to those who rely on public spaces for refuge is one way to help. Checking in with older neighbors or neighbors with a chronic illness who may have trouble smoke-proofing their homes is another.

Grass says the health department is planning for episodes of acute pollution as part of Vermont's work to adapt to climate change.

"It's never a good feeling when, you know, the forecasts that have been part of the discussion for, you know, the last 10 years start becoming a reality," he said. "But you have to adapt, adjust your programming accordingly."


Updated: June 27, 2023 at 5:10 PM EDT
This story has been updated to reflect new data from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources regarding Burlington's air quality and to reflect reporting from NPR on Quebec's wildfires.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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