Western wildfires bring poor air quality to East Tennessee

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)– Knox County and portions of the East Tennessee region have been under an air quality alert after smoke from wildfires caused hazy conditions.

On Thursday, the air quality was reported as ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ by the Environmental Protection Agency and AirNow.gov.

The smoke isn’t coming from anywhere nearby. In fact, the WATE Storm Team said the haze is coming from the wildfires out west and up in Canada.

The haze was so thick, Dustin Coapman, a landscaper with Lawn Butler, said he thought it was fog.

“I was like, ‘what in the world? Where did the fog come from? But, it didn’t even dawn on me that it’s haze from the smoke. It was more like, visibly noticeable,” Coapman said.

Coapman said Thursdays are a long day of being outside. Not only was the heat an issue, but the haze was bothering his crew too.

“He was just having a hard time breathing because of the heat, plus the haze, or all together or what, but things seemed a little off today,” Coapman said.

The ‘polluted’ air can be tough among certain groups, especially if they are outside too long, according to the EPA.

AirNow.gov says under the air quality alert for portions of East Tennessee, people with heart or lung disease, older adults, children and teens should take any of these steps to reduce exposure:

  • Choose less strenuous activities (like walking instead of running) so you don’t breathe as hard.
  • Shorten the amount of time you are active outdoors.
  • Be active outdoors when air quality is better.

Brian Rivera, the Division Director of Air Quality for the Knox County Health Department, said the reason the area is under a poor air quality alert is because that smoke from the wildfires brought particulates down to East Tennessee, exceeding the safe amount.

“Think of it as dust that’s the size of one-twentieth of a hair. So, it’s very fine particulates. So when that happens we take measures here in the county to make sure, you know, that we’re not going to exceed it more than we currently are,” Rivera said.

Rivera said it’s not unusual for a weather event from far away to impact Knox County.

“One of the things that happens a lot actually is the Sahara Dust event that we have every now and again. Basically, what happens is the dust in the Sahara Desert gets trapped in the atmosphere and literally crosses the ocean and gets traveled up into our Valleys,” Rivera said.

Rivera said when the air quality is poor, the county takes measures so it doesn’t get worse, such as issuing a burn ban and asking the community to use less combustion.

“If they can delay any type of combustion, and that’s things like driving your vehicle, barbecuing, mowing grass. If you can delay those things to a different day, that will help us keep our levels down,” Rivera said.

Unfortunately for Coapman, that’s part of his job. But, just like knowing how to stay cool and healthy when it’s hot outside, he’s learned taking a break in the air conditioning helps with the impacts of the haze as well.

“It feels thick outside compared to like, going and sitting in the air condition and you cool off and you feel like you can breathe a little better,” Coapman said.

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