Wildfire smoke lingering in Anchorage and surrounding areas was causing health problems for some residents Thursday morning.
Kyle Wiertsema, a medical assistant at Providence Senior Care Center in Anchorage, had received about 10 calls from seniors who were having difficulty breathing Thursday morning. "I'm sure I'm going to be getting more before the end of the day," he said.
Staying indoors is the best bet to minimizing the smoke's effects, and "if there are air filters available, definitely use them," Wiertsema said.
But "essentially, really there's not much to do to escape," he said.
Air quality in Anchorage and Eagle River was considered "unhealthy" until around 11 a.m., when an overnight temperature inversion began to lift and dissipating smoke allowed officials to bump the rating to "moderate," said Matt Stichick, environmental engineer with the Anchorage air quality program. South Anchorage was seeing even heavier smoke early Thursday morning.
But "we could be in the same position" Friday morning, Stichick said, with heavy smoke settling in again. Shifting winds forecast for Saturday also could carry even more smoke from the Funny River fire on the Kenai Peninsula into Anchorage.
"It could be an interesting weekend," Stichick said.
Visibility at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, listed as 1.5 miles early Thursday, had improved to 10 miles by noon.
Air quality advisories were in effect Thursday in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Kenai Peninsula. But outdoor after-school activities for the Anchorage School District were going forward as planned, according to spokesperson Heidi Embley.
In Mat-Su, air quality ranged from unhealthy to hazardous, according to a press release sent out by Frankie Barker, environmental planner with the borough.
Providence Senior Care Center was issuing rescue inhalers to seniors with asthma and other respiratory illnesses to use in addition to normal inhalers.
Other complaints included dry, itchy eyes, Wiertsema said. The center is recommending over-the-counter eye drops to keep eyes moistened.
John Tappel, a pediatrician with LaTouche Pediatrics, had seen a few patients Thursday morning with complaints due to smoke.
"Generally it's burning eyes and coughing," he said.
Children are more susceptible than adults to particulate matter in the air, Tappel said. Because of their high metabolic rate, kids breathe more air per in relation to their weight, Tappel said. They also have smaller airways, making them more susceptible to symptoms.
Respiratory illnesses are compounded by three factors: high pollen counts, lingering wintertime viral illnesses and now smoke. It's "the perfect storm for respiratory illness," Tappel said.
Parents of children who have respiratory conditions should be sure to have medications at hand, Tappel said.
Dr. Marek Martynowicz, pulmonologist with Providence Alaska Medical Center, said smoke exacerbates patient breathing tubes and can cause upper respiratory problems such as congestion and cough.
He hasn't seen a significant increase in patient phone calls due to the smoke, "which actually surprised me," he said.
An uptick in issues is possible if smoke lingers through the weekend. "The longer people get exposed to it, the more it may cause problems," he said.
The Anchorage Health Department was advising residents to stay indoors Thursday, especially those with heart and lung problems, Stichick said. An N95 respirator mask can also help to reduce particulate matter but won't remove all the components of smoke, Stichick said.
Wearing a mask is a "trade-off," however, because the mask's resistance makes breathing more difficult, he said. Thus, a mask may not be suitable for people with respiratory ailments, Stichick said.
The city Thursday morning was looking for a "respite" center with good indoor air quality that could accommodate patients but was unable to locate a building with suitable filtration.
"If people are inundated with smoke in their home, they may want to seek alternative arrangements," Stichick said.
"Unhealthy" air conditions are defined as visibility of 1.5 to 2.5 miles, according to the Fairbanks North Star Borough's smoke visibility and air quality index. In these conditions, people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children should avoid prolonged exertion, and the general population should limit prolonged exertion.
"Very unhealthy" occurs when visibility drops to between three-quarters mile and 1.5 miles. People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children should avoid any outdoor activity. Everyone else should avoid prolonged exertion.
"Hazardous" conditions occur when visibility is three-quarters of a mile or less. In those conditions, everyone should avoid outdoor exertion.
By LAUREL ANDREWS