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Officials: Vermonters should prepare to protect their lungs with Quebec fires expected again

Orange and gray smoke fills the sky above a forest of evergreen trees.
U.S. Forest Service
Smoke rising from the Tamarack Fire in 2021.

The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost. Vermont Public was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story.

The warning came Monday: The most extreme wildfires on Earth are on the rise — more frequent, more intense.

A study in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution found that across the planet wildfires have doubled in the last two decades.

As neighbors to some of the most intense wildfires reported, Vermonters might wonder: Are they headed here?

“It may happen in the future,” said Dan Dillner, forest fire supervisor for the state Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation.

“We’re not on the level of having gigantic fires in Vermont yet,” Dillner said. But as fires continue to send smog south to the Green Mountain State, officials believe Vermonters should pay attention and prepare to protect their lungs.

Thirteen million acres of Quebec forest burned last year, blanketing Vermont in pollutants, Dillner said. In a recent report, the Canadian government predicted another year of high wildfire risk.

In his 12 years at the Vermont Department of Health, senior environmental health manager David Grass said he has never seen wildfires affecting Vermont’s air like last year. “2023 felt like it was qualitatively different in terms of the types of air quality that Vermont was experiencing,” he said.

The impact last summer allowed him a better appreciation for the challenges Americans experience on the West Coast.

“These health impacts and environmental exposures, it’s a part of their lives for a much longer period of time,” he said.

When wildfire smoke passes Vermont, it’s usually at high altitudes, unnoticed on the ground, said Bennet Leon, air quality planning chief for the Department of Environmental Conservation. “The wildfire smoke happening in Quebec last summer was nearby and didn’t have time to rise up in the atmosphere,” he said.

Vermont was in very high fire danger last year — a rarity when the forests are greened up, Dillner said. “A lot of the state is hardwoods, maple, birch, oaks, and when the leaves are green, the trees are not going to burn,” he said. Quebec’s forests have more soft woods like spruce, fir and pines, which can easily dry up and burn.

“Fire is natural in that ecosystem,” he said. “What’s not natural is that the climate is changing and that (last year) had just no precipitation.”

“What's normal has changed,” he said. "It seems like it’s time to start thinking about that and preparing.”

As wildfire numbers rise in the U.S. and Canada, homeowners may do well to start learning how to make their homes fire resilient. Dillner recommends people mow a green area next to their home that can act as a buffer. Having any dead standing vegetation up against homes can be a fire risk, he said.

“Our biggest risk is humans being careless,” he said, noting every forest fire in Vermont last year was caused by people. “There’s no excuse for not knowing what the conditions are.”

Officials are looking at how they can get more staff trained to quell larger fires, he said. “I don’t really see Vermont having enormous fires, thousands of acres. But even a few hundred-acre fires in Chittenden County would be quite an event,” said Dillner.

Wildfires and the resulting smoke are not a new phenomenon. Vermont has been monitoring the location and effects of fires since at least 2002, with records dating back to the early 1900s, said Lesley-Ann Dupigny, Vermont’s state climatologist and University of Vermont professor.

“The topography and physical geography of Vermont can allow for more stagnation of poor air quality,” she said via email.

She points to the federal government's Fifth National Climate Assessment, which says climate change can worsen air pollution and increase wildfire smoke.

According to the NASA Earth Observatory, carbon emissions from Canadian wildfires increased in 2023. That came alongside a spike in particles called PM2.5, according to the Yale School of Public Health. They come from smoke and can increase sky haze.

The particles’ size means they can penetrate deep into lungs. If inhaled, they can cause cardiovascular or neurological disease, respiratory illness and even death.

Grass sees impacts from smoke-filled air as a pyramid.

First: people with symptoms like itchy eyes, a headache or a scratchy throat. “Just something that they noticed in their body that was different from what they experienced on days with better air quality,” he said.

One step up, Grass said, are people whose exposure leads them to go to a doctor.

The final level is when impacts are severe enough to put you in the emergency room, usually by aggravating existing conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

A study by the New York State Department of Health examined the number of emergency room visits in upstate New York during the periods the wildfire smoke impacted the state. It showed an 80% increase in visits on the day with the most smoke.

“I would expect that Vermont would experience similar impacts,” Grass said.

On the other side of Lake Champlain, the Vermont Department of Health found an increase in emergency room visits when Vermont saw widespread haze from the northern fires, especially for those with COPD. “You could see a spike that seemed to occur at the same time,” said Grass.

People who have preexisting breathing conditions, don’t have housing or who need to work outdoors are at higher risk for smoke-related lung problems, he said.

Kids face more risk too because of their smaller bodies and faster respiratory rate, he said. Plus, they can’t always control their activities and where they can be.

For people already struggling with COPD or asthma, he said, poor air quality “may be enough to push someone into a health crisis.”

He cited a study on wildland firefighters. “The more you were exposed to the smoke, the more likely that it was that you had lung problems,” he said.

Grass isn’t concerned Vermonters are at risk of that level of exposure, but he hopes they “can take preventative steps in order to minimize their exposure.”

Leon, the air quality official, urges people to watch for symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath — signs to “take it easy” and find a place with better air quality.

He also advises people to watch air quality alerts using Vermont Alert or EnviroFlash, and if quality is especially bad, people can even wear filtered masks.

“There’s a lot of fire north to us, and when the wind changes direction, it brings it to us,” Dillner said, comparing it to the movement of a campfire. “Sometimes the smoke blows on you, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Data doesn’t show Vermont’s getting more fires each year, Dillner said.

“I do think things are changing,” he said. “I think we’re getting even more periods of extended dry weather with a lot more potential for large fires.”

Corrected: July 1, 2024 at 12:18 PM EDT
The sixth sentence of this story was changed to accurately reflect what Dillner said. "Thirteen million acres of Quebec forest burned last year, blanketing Vermont in pollutants."
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