Smoke from western US wildfires arrives in Delaware

A haze, emanating from the fires on the West Coast, sets over a field in Magnolia in the late afternoon hours of Tuesday. (Submitted photo/David Krauss)

DOVER — Carried thousands of miles by prevailing winds, drifting smoke from western United States wildfires has hovered above Delaware the past several days.

According to National Weather Service meteorologist Lee Robertson, rising smoke in California and other states became trapped inside the jet stream and was carried east.

The effect was noticeable upon arrival under clear skies that turned slightly hazy in Delaware, though Mr. Robertson said that the past couple cloudy days lessened the view above.

Though the smoke thinned as it continued blowing this way “there was still enough left to filter the sun,” he said.

While the smoke dropped to about 10,000 feet from its arriving altitude of 25,000 feet or so, Mr. Robertson said Delawareans aren’t facing health consequences at this point. On Thursday, he pointed to an online air quality assessment at airnow.gov indicating that “it’s in the good range in this area.”

The public can sign up to receive air quality alerts from AirNow.gov. Maps showing smoke plumes are also available at the website.

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Division of Air Quality Unit said that it did not anticipate an impact to ground-level ozone levels and no elevated levels have been detected.

Also, DNREC said, “The haze (or smoke) is blocking sunlight and is potentially impacting the formation of ground level ozone.

“The haze may actually be responsible for lowering temperatures by a degree or two, according the National Weather Service, which is another ingredient for ozone formation. Our particulate monitors are not detecting any unusual elevations in fine particulates.”

While smoke effects have reached Delaware from the Carolinas and Virginia before, Mr. Robertson said they’ve also arrived from as far as Alaska during wildfires.

“It there are enough fires covering a large enough area they can come from across the country,” he said.

According to the Associated Press, the sun was transformed into a perfect orange orb as it set over New York City on Tuesday. Photographs of it sinking behind the skyline and glinting through tree leaves flooded social media.

On Wednesday, New Jersey residents described a yellow tinge to the overcast skies, and weather forecasters were kept busy explaining the phenomenon and making predictions as to how long the conditions would last, the AP reported.

The smoke has stretched across the country and also pushed into Mexico, Canada and Europe. While the dangerous plumes are forcing people inside along the West Coast, residents thousands of miles away in the East are seeing unusually hazy skies and remarkable sunsets.

The wildfires racing across tinder-dry landscape in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington are extraordinary, but the long reach of their smoke isn’t unprecedented. While there are only small pockets in the southeastern U.S. that are haze free, experts say the smoke poses less of a health concern for those who are farther away.

On the opposite coast, air quality conditions were among some of the worst ever recorded. Smoke cloaked the Golden Gate Bridge and left Portland and Seattle in an ashy fog, as crews have exhausted themselves trying to keep the flames from consuming more homes and even wider swaths of forest.

Satellite images showed that smoke from the wildfires has traveled almost 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) to Britain and other parts of northern Europe, scientists said Wednesday.

The current weather system, which favors a westerly wind across the higher levels of the atmosphere, is to blame for the reach of the smoke, experts explained.

“We always seem, at times, to get the right combination of enough smoke and the upper level jet stream to line up to bring that across the country, so we’re just seeing this again,” said Matt Solum with the NWS’s regional operations center in Salt Lake City, Utah. “It’s definitely not the first time this has happened.”

There could be some easing of the haze this weekend as a storm system is expected to move into the Pacific Northwest and could affect the conditions that helped the smoke travel across the country. But Solum said there’s always a chance for more smoke and haze to shift around.

“Just due to all the wildfires that are going on, this is likely going to continue for a while,” he said. “You might have ebbs and flows of that smoke just depending on how the upper level winds set up.”

Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, said she woke up Wednesday to a red sunrise and more haze.

She said millions of people who live beyond the flames can end up dealing with diminished air quality as it’s not uncommon for wildfire smoke to travel hundreds of miles.

Although the health impacts are reduced the farther and higher into the atmosphere the smoke travels, Knowlton and her colleagues said the resulting haze can exacerbate existing problems like asthma and add to ozone pollution.