Smoke from wildfires in Southwestern Alaska is expected to continue spreading across some parts of the state, though Southcentral is likely to get some relief early this week, meteorologists said Monday.
On Sunday, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation issued air quality advisories for the Southwest, Southcentral, and the central, eastern and western Interior regions of Alaska that last through Tuesday at 4 p.m.
Smoke on Monday in the Southcentral area was improving and expected to continue clearing through Tuesday, said Ray Christensen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“For Southcentral, I think we’re going to see a general improvement, at least through about midweek,” he said. “After that, it’s really tough to forecast the smoke.”
The smoke is coming from fires in Southwest Alaska, including a historic tundra wildfire that’s threatened multiple villages, KYUK reported this week. It’s the region’s largest fire ever, in an area of the state that has warmed three times faster than the Lower 48, the station reported. Warm and dry conditions in both northern and Western Alaska have translated to more frequent tundra wildfires, according to research from the Alaska Fire Science Consortium and International Arctic Research Center.
Mark Smith, an air quality meteorologist for the state, said that given current winds, the highest concentrations of smoke will stay west of the Alaska Range and flow into the Fairbanks area.
Smith said Monday he planned to reissue most of the current advisories, but said he wasn’t sure if he’d issue an advisory for Southcentral beyond Tuesday because of how winds are currently moving.
Advisories are triggered if smoke concentrations are or are expected to be within the range of being unhealthy for people who are sensitive to it, Smith said. The current advisories say that the air quality could range from good to unhealthy, depending on wind conditions and how close people are to the fires.
Smith said that since the fires are not near Anchorage like they were in 2019 with the Swan Lake fire, the Southcentral area will probably experience air quality that’s somewhere between what’s categorized as “good” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”
“We have a mountain range in between us and the main system of fires and the smoke producers,” Smith said.
Wildfire smoke, a mixture of gases and fine particles, can go deep into lungs when inhaled, said Sarah Yoder, who manages Alaska’s Environmental Public Health program. The advisories help people who may be at increased risk of health impacts from inhaling the smoke minimize their exposure, she said. People at increased risk include children, elderly adults, people with conditions like asthma, outdoor workers and those who are pregnant.
When it’s smoky outside, Yoder said that the best thing people can do to limit exposure is stay inside with windows and doors shut, which she acknowledged can be challenging on warm days without air conditioning. She also suggested running an air purifier, and minimizing any other air pollution in the house, by doing things like avoiding vacuuming, frying foods and burning candles.
She has received questions on outdoor exercise, which she said comes down to a personal decision when there’s poor air quality.
“The harder you’re breathing outside, the more of that smoke you’re inhaling so we’d recommend recreating indoors if possible during these these times as well,” she said.