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WEATHER ALERT: Severe storms expected late this afternoon and evening

A big start to wildfire season could mean another smoky summer in the Midwest and Great Plains

Wildfires in Canada blew a smoky haze across parts of the Midwest in the summer of 2023, including Kansas City, Missouri, creating breathing problems for sensitive residents.

Drought and some holdover wildfires from last year in Canada are already sending smoke into the Midwest and Great Plains.

As wildfire smoke blanketed the Midwest last summer, Dr. Juanita Mora’s patients started to call with symptoms.

“I saw many cases in which it was their first time, never had an asthma exacerbation, came in with wheezing and respiratory difficulty and shortness of breath,” Mora said.

Mora is an immunologist and allergist who works with underserved populations in Chicago. In June 2023, wildfire smoke briefly gave Chicago the distinction of being the city with the worst air quality worldwide.

Already this year, smoke from Canadian wildfires has led to air quality alerts in the Midwest and Great Plains, with North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota all measuring high levels of wildfire smoke in May. There have also been especially poor air quality measures in cities like Kansas City, Kansas. But there’s still a question of how this year might compare to last.

“We’re watching very closely,” said Mora, who is also a national medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association.

Conditions in Canada point to another potentially smoke-filled summer. The country is experiencing widespread drought, with some regions recording multiple years of abnormally dry conditions.

“As they enter this year, they have all the elements in place for another extremely active fire season,” said Christopher Redmond, a meteorologist at Kansas State University and with the Kansas Forest Service.

Some of the Canadian wildfires were actually holdovers from the 2023 season, known as “zombie fires,” that smoldered through the winter. As May progresses, the North American Seasonal Fire Assessment and Outlook predicts increased risk for wildfires in large parts of Canada.

“An upcoming period of warm, dry, and at times windy weather, coupled with possible thunderstorms in western Canada may kickstart additional fire activity,” the report states.

Wildfires in other parts of the continent don’t always mean air quality issues downwind. Redmond said May’s air quality issues were largely due to a strong cold front that pushed the smoke toward the ground.

“We’re not measuring air quality in the upper levels of the atmosphere,” Redmond said. “We can visibly see it, but we’re not measuring it, because all our sensors are on the ground where the people are.”

In general, air quality has been getting better in recent decades, said John Gering, who works on ambient air monitoring for the Air Quality Bureau with Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources.

“I started working for the Air Quality Bureau in the year 2000,” Gering said. “And you know, I witnessed a general downtrend in pollutant levels, but 2023 was a very unusual summer.”

That summer, compared to a five year average, Gering recorded 36 times more ozone levels that exceeded the National Ambient Air Quality Standard and 20 times more exceedances of PM2.5, which are both associated with wildfire smoke.

“It is unfortunate, but it kind of is what it is,” Gering said. “It’s one of those situations where you’re subjected to factors that you don’t have any control over.”

So far, Gering’s office has not had to issue an alert this year, although one sensor in northwest Iowa came very close as wildfire smoke moved into the Midwest earlier in May.

Gering’s office and others across the country issue alerts to try to keep the public safe. Experts suggest people use weather apps on their phone or pay attention to official sites like AirNow.Gov to protect themselves when air is unhealthy.

When pollution is high, they suggest staying indoors and using indoor air filters to stay safe. Sensitive groups should stay especially vigilant, including young people, older people and people with underlying health issues, experts said.

Mora is looking for longer-term solutions, including policies to reduce air pollution and combat climate change, which has increased the area burned and severity of wildfires according to the National Climate Assessment.

“This is why we are really working hard towards decreasing the amount of emissions that people inhale and cleaning up the air as much as possible,” she said, “so that we improve health and save lives.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

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Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

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Severe storms possible Thursday evening and overnight

From the National Weather Service in Central Illinois: A line of t’storms will affect the area late Thursday afternoon into the overnight hours. Some severe storms are in the forecast, with damaging wind gusts and large hail. Stay weather aware and be ready to take shelter when storms approach.