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Forecast: Wildfire smoke could hurt Minnesota air quality this summer, but nothing like 2021

With above-normal fire activity expected in Canada, the region can expect smoky air this summer. But drought conditions in Minnesota have improved so the likelihood of major wildfires within the state is lower, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency forecast released Tuesday, April 26.

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Smoky skies obscure the view of the Aerial Lift Bridge from Thompson Hill in Duluth on Saturday, July 31, 2021. Smoke from Canadian wildfires continues to fill the skies over the area creating record levels of particulate matter and reducing air quality to levels never seen before.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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ST. PAUL — Forecasters with Minnesota’s environmental agency do not expect air quality conditions to be nearly as bad this summer as they were in 2021, when severe wildfires triggered the worst air quality conditions recorded in the state’s history.

With above-normal fire activity expected in Canada, the region can expect smoky air this summer. But drought conditions in Minnesota have improved so the likelihood of major wildfires within the state is lower, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency forecast released Tuesday, April 26. That means the state can expect wildfire smoke this summer, but with less local smoke, overall it’s likely to be less severe than the year before.

A severe drought last summer combined with massive wildfires in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Ontario triggered unprecedented poor air quality in Minnesota, with cities in the central part of the state setting all-time records for particulates in the air. All areas of Minnesota had unsafe air quality for all groups, and some parts of the state remained under air quality warnings for nearly a month. Much of the state was shrouded in a thick haze, impacting visibility. Often, the air smelled like burning wood.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been issuing air quality alerts since 2011, and last year's wildfire season was a historic one, said air quality forecaster Matt Taraldsen.

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"2021 was challenging because it wasn’t just a lot of events we had to forecast for but the severity and duration and the scope was really unprecedented,” Taraldsen told reporters as forecasters announced projections for summer 2022. “It was a high-impact event, it was something that we just do not see in Minnesota.”

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St Cloud’s air quality monitor hit an all-time record of 422 micrograms per cubic meter on July 29, 2021. Brainerd recorded 401 micrograms that same day. Those levels of pollution are well above the hazardous category threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

U.S. environmental agencies and air quality forecasters use an air quality index scale to describe levels of pollution and the level of risk it poses. The scale runs from zero to 500. Anything above 100 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as people with asthma or heart disease. Anything above 150 is considered unhealthy for everyone.

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AQI Scale
Environmental Protection Agency

Minnesota’s air quality index measures five different pollutants: fine particles, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. The pollutant with the highest AQI determines the AQI for the hour, according to MPCA. last year, particulates from fires drove the poor conditions.

At 29 days, northeast Minnesota had the longest air quality alert duration on record, according to pollution control agency officials. A major wildfire in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region contributed to the smoky conditions there.

It’s hard to predict what drought conditions could look like in Minnesota in the coming months, though the National Weather Service predicts the summer will be hotter and drier than average. However, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency forecaster Nick Witcraft said the wetter conditions this spring could potentially keep fires down in the northern part of the state. Northwestern Minnesota has seen severe flooding this spring.

The pollution control agency provides Minnesota air quality condition updates at www.pca.state.mn.us/air/current-air-quality.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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