The Midwest Could Be in for Another Smoke-Filled Summer. Here’s How States Are Preparing

Fires fueled by drought are sending smoke south from Canada into the U.S., leaving folks exposed to dangerous particulate matter in the air.

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Heavy smoke from Canadian wildfires blankets downtown St. Paul, Minn. on June 14, 2023. Credit: Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images
Heavy smoke from Canadian wildfires blankets downtown St. Paul, Minn. on June 14, 2023. Credit: Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images

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Nick Witcraft knew he’d have a busy morning when his phone notified him that Canadian wildfire smoke was drifting across the U.S.-Canadian border eight days ago. 

Witcraft, a meteorologist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), is among a team of state forecasters who issue air quality alerts whenever a wildfire or any other major polluting event poses a potential health risk to the public. 

It used to be a far more arduous process, Witcraft said, taking up to five hours as he and his colleagues coordinated with federal agencies and tailored individual alerts for cities and towns that might be affected. But in 2021, MPCA made several changes to its alert system after wildfires on the western side of the U.S. and Canada sent massive plumes of smoke into Minnesota, triggering a record 16 air quality alerts that tested the agency’s ability to act quickly. 

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To address that, MPCA switched from issuing individual forecasts for cities and towns to sending out broader regional ones. The agency also developed a computer program to streamline their messages to the public.

Those changes shaved hours off the alert process, Witcraft said, and as wildfire smoke wafted across the Minnesota border from some 80 Canadian blazes this month, he and his colleagues were able to wrap up their duties and send out a statewide alert well before noon. “Before 2021, I doubt we would have gotten an alert out before mid-afternoon,” he said. “The whole process was done by 11 a.m.”

Other changes MCPA implemented included regularly adopting the three most severe categories for air quality in their maps and public health alerts: code red, code purple and code maroon. At those levels of air pollution, the general public, not just sensitive groups like those with asthma, could experience health impacts from breathing the air.

“Until 2021, it was rare to issue an alert higher than orange,” Witcraft said, adding that the state detected air pollution reaching code red levels multiple times that year.

Across the Midwest, Clogged Air Filters and More Severe Alerts

As hazy summer skies become more common in the Midwest thanks to drought-fueled blazes in the West and all across Canada, many Great Lakes states are adjusting the way they monitor wildfire hazards and issue air quality alerts to the public. Air quality was exceptionally poor in the Midwest last summer, as more than 400 blazes raged from British Columbia to Quebec and common weather patterns moved the smoke south into the U.S.

Minnesota issued a record 21 air quality alerts in 2023, breaking the previous high of 16 set in 2021. Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana also issued notably more air quality alerts in 2023 than on an average year, with Michigan issuing its very first public health alert for particulate matter pollution, known as PM2.5. Parts of Indiana last summer experienced levels of PM2.5 on certain days that were five times higher than what the federal government considers safe over a 24-hour period. “Daily PM2.5 concentrations were among the highest we have measured,” Barry Sneed, a public information officer for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said in an email.

PM2.5 is a category of microscopic particles, more commonly known as soot, that can enter the human bloodstream through the lungs and cause a host of serious health problems, including lung disease, heart disease, asthma and premature death. Recent studies estimated that as many as 283,000 Americans died prematurely in 2015 from exposure to particulate matter pollution.

In Wisconsin, which also measured some of its worst air quality days on record last summer, state officials were forced to update how frequently they change the filters in their air monitors, which quickly became clogged by the wildfire smoke.

Katie Praedel, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ air monitoring section chief, said the agency typically changes those filters once every 90 days, but was forced to swap them out every single month last summer. “Oh, at least 100,” she replied, when asked how many monitors across the state required early maintenance that summer.

Last year’s extreme smoke levels prompted Michigan officials to add a second and more severe tier to their notification system. Now the state issues air quality advisories, as well as air quality alerts, the latter of which signals that the pollution levels are especially high that day and most people should take precautions. “With last summer having some very high pollution concentrations, we wanted to create a higher tier to raise the awareness for high concentrations of ozone and PM2.5,” said Alec Kownacki, a meteorologist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

Changes to public messaging about wildfire smoke risks was the most common adjustment that state agencies made. Many began coordinating with state health departments to better unify their messages, while some, such as Minnesota and Michigan, also streamlined their coordination with federal agencies to more quickly exchange information such as forecast data. Wisconsin created a web page last year explicitly dedicated to warning the public about how to best protect themselves from the hazards of wildfire smoke exposure.

It’s good that states are improving their public alerts as more people experience higher levels of pollution from wildfires, said Paul Billings, senior vice president for public policy at the American Lung Association. “When we see these smoke events, it’s important for the public to be informed about the health risks and [health officials] encourage people to take steps to protect themselves,” he said.

That could mean limiting time spent outside, he said, retreating to buildings with central air or donning N95 masks to help keep harmful particles out of your lungs. Employers should consider providing more frequent breaks, or canceling work for the day entirely, he said, and parents and caretakers should consider limiting children’s outdoor activities, including sports.

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State agencies said the adjustments have helped them feel more prepared for another potentially smoke-filled summer this year. “The air quality outlook for the summer is for an above-average season, but not as bad as last year,” Minnesota’s Witcraft said. 

Much of Canada remains in drought conditions after a mild winter with below-average snowpack. Many of the fires that began last year never fully went out, quietly smoldering as embers through the winter and reigniting in spring—a phenomenon known as zombie fires. Some of those fires were the cause of Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s air quality alerts last week. Michigan, too, saw impacts to its air quality, but not quite enough to trigger state warnings.

The Midwest will likely see these events more frequently as the planet continues to warm, creating the drought conditions that make wildfires more likely and severe, Billings said. 

“It’s clear that this is the new normal,” he said. “This is no longer a western U.S. phenomenon. The fire seasons are getting longer. They’re getting more severe. Climate change is a big driver of that.” 

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