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Dangerous smoke hazard persists throughout WNC

Dangerous smoke hazard persists throughout WNC

Two dozen or so forest fires in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Western North Carolina have forced mandatory evacuations in WNC, but the impact is being felt and smelt far beyond the remote coves where they smolder. 

Smoke from the fires — depending on prevailing winds and frontal activity — is drifting miles from its source, and is easily visible on satellite imagery, blanketing the Southeast and at times stretching to the Atlantic Ocean. 

On Nov. 5, Waynesville and its environs first began to experience a pervasive campfire smell that was not altogether unpleasant but for the lingering notion that people and property were at grave risk just 10 miles distant. 

With that smell came diminished visibility and decreasing air quality. 

Not coincidentally, on Nov. 5 the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Division of Air Quality changed its air quality forecast for the Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, Swain, Transylvania and Yancey counties from Code Green to Code Yellow. 

Code Yellow warns those who are “unusually sensitive” to limit extended or excessive exertion outdoors. 

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The very next day, the forecast again changed, but this time to Code Orange, bearing an increased risk of danger for “children, active people, older adults, and those with heart or lung disease (like asthma).”

It remained at Code Orange through Nov. 8 — a smoky, hazy Election Day — until peaking the next day with a Code Red designation — advising almost everyone to avoid prolonged exposure to outdoor air.

While the forecast did diminish through Code Orange and Code Yellow over the next two days, it then increased through yellow and orange again, peaking at Code Red on Nov. 13 as smoke returned to enshroud the region.

Through Nov. 16, many residents of Western North Carolina haven’t seen a Code Green air quality rating for a while now, wheezing and hacking their way through 12 days of moderate to unhealthy air quality.


Hospitals, schools brace for impact

Smoke is an ephemeral, almost indescribable phenomenon, but the science behind it conclusively attests to its danger. 

Wildfires tend to release an inordinate amount of particulate matter, which can create breathing difficulty and exacerbate existing circulatory and respiratory conditions depending on length of exposure, vigorousness of inhalation and overall smoke concentration. The highest particle concentrations usually occur during the evening or early morning. 

Everyone exposed is at risk; the most susceptible are the very young, the very old, people with existing health conditions and people who exercise or work outdoors. 

Short-term symptoms of exposure include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat — tears, coughs and runny noses — but can progress to nausea, headaches and even loss of consciousness. 

Long-term exposure over a period of days or weeks may result in chronic lung problems as well as heart issues. 

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“Your own observations will be the best guide for determining how the smoke is affecting air quality in your area,” said DAQ Deputy Director Mike Abraczinskas. “If you can see heavy haze and smell smoke, then air quality is not good and you should limit your outdoor activities. This is particularly important for sensitive groups — that is, children, older adults, people with heart and respiratory problems, and those who work and exercise outside for extended times.”

Despite the lack of an increase in emergency room patients seeking care for respiratory distress, at-risk populations should consider precautionary measures even in light or moderate conditions, according to a statement issued by North Carolina’s sixth-largest health system, Mission Health. 

People who are generally healthy should consider such measures when conditions worsen or last for more than a day. 

Those measures, according to the DAQ, include remaining indoors, setting climate control to recirculate air, limiting strenuous indoor activity, avoiding cigarette smoke, using HEPA air filtration and abstaining from using gas or wood stoves and candles.

Medical care may become necessary — especially for the vulnerable — if a persistent or worsening cough develops, shortness of breath or chest pain/tightness increases, or weakness and fatigue become significant. 

Treatment is usually accomplished with antibiotics, bronchodilators and/or steroids and can be successful if begun before symptoms become excessive or aggravate pre-existing conditions, although removing oneself from a smoky environment is often enough to clear up minor issues. 

The Haywood County school system issued a press release to that effect on the afternoon of Nov. 14, stating, “We are advising our schools to limit outdoor physical education and monitor any students with health history of a respiratory condition.”

Bill Nolte, associate superintendent of Haywood County Schools, said that the school district doesn’t have a policy per se, just like it does not have a policy for blizzards or other rare occurrences. Incidents, said Nolte, are handled on a case-by-case basis.

“Parents are the ultimate authority,” Nolte said, adding that parents are best equipped to make health-related decisions for their children. 

A similar attitude prevailed in Macon County, where Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin said that although no official policy exists, all county school principals have curtailed outdoor recess, physical education and extra-curricular sports.

Of further concern for student-athletes is that both Pisgah and Tuscola High Schools are scheduled to host home football games Friday night, which as of press time may be in jeopardy if the smoke doesn’t abate. 

For more information on the DAQ’s daily air quality forecast — issued each day around 3 p.m. — visit

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