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Minn., Douglas County air conditions unprecedented

The smoky conditions Douglas County saw last week are gone. For now. That could change if the wind shifts direction again, according to an official from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

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The sun shines red Thursday morning as smoke from Canadian wildfires covers much of Minnesota on July 29, 2021. Lowell Anderson / Alexandria Echo Press
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The smoky conditions Douglas County saw last week are gone. For now.

That could change if the wind shifts direction again, according to an official from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

"The problem is, those fires in Canada continue to be pretty active," said research scientist and meteorologist Matthew Taraldsen. "If we get another cold front that comes through, if we get that northwest flow again, there's nothing to stop that smoke from coming right back down."

The good news is Taraldsen doesn't see that happening, at least this week.

"By (Tuesday, Aug. 2) afternoon the thinking is that southerly winds will be enough to push that smoke out of Minnesota and back into Canada," he said. "But, it's one of those things where, until the pattern shifts … what you see is what you're going to get."

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A red-colored sun reflects on Lake Carlos as smoke from Canadian wildfires covers most of Minnesota on Thursday morning, July 29, 2021. Lowell Anderson / Alexandria Echo Press.

As of press time, Douglas County is listed as being "moderate" on the United States Air Quality Index, or AQI, meaning that while air quality is acceptable, there may be a health risk to people who are sensitive to air pollution.

That's a big step up from last week, when Douglas County was red - unhealthy - for about 48 hours, and purple - very unhealthy - for about two hours.

According to data from the MPCA, the air quality monitor at St. Cloud hit 422 micrograms per cubic meter at 11 a.m. Thursday, July 29, a reading that broke the record set earlier that day in Brainerd of 401 micrograms per cubic meter.

This is unprecedented, Taraldsen said.

"We have not seen that before in Minnesota as far as we can tell," he said.

Taraldsen said the MPCA generally has a weekly call in which they discuss conditions and get information from representatives in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ontario, Canada, as well as getting additional input from the National Weather Service.

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Due to the recent conditions, those calls have taken place "pretty much every other day," he said.

"The area that's burning is pretty much uninhabited, and there's not even any weather sensors around it," Taraldsen said. "So basically, we can watch it on satellite, but we don't have a lot of good data until it gets … to Lake of the Woods.

"That has been a tricky aspect of this, and we have done a very good job, I think, of telling people what's going on, but there's always a certain level of inference you have to do with these events, because it's really hard to tell just how bad that smoke is, because there are no cities up there," he said.

One of the things the MPCA has told people is to consider their health when they are outside.

Conditions like those seen last week affect not only people with asthma, but those with cardiovascular issues, as well as children and older adults.

"Basically, all the pollution in the air makes it harder for your body to get oxygen to where it needs to be, and so that's why we advise people, 'Listen to your body,'" Taraldsen said.

In other words, "When you start noticing symptoms, go indoors," he said.

MPCA is encouraging affected people to pay attention to the AQI, information about which is available at https://www.pca.state.mn.us/air/current-air-quality, as well as https://twitter.com/mpca_aqi.

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For those who are more technologically savvy, there is Minnesota Air, a free smartphone app offered by the state of Minnesota.

"That has air quality information in it, that has our hourly observations (and) our forecasts," Taraldsen said.

Air quality alerts will be issued through the app, as well, he said.

"The tools are out there to keep track of it yourself, and that can be very helpful," he said.

Related Topics: DOUGLAS COUNTYALEXANDRIA
Travis Gulbrandson covers several beats, including Osakis School Board and Osakis City Council, along with the Brandon-Evansville School Board. His focus will also be on crime and court news.
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