Extreme fire conditions persist in Haines and Skagway and local fire departments have maintained a ban on all open fires. As Haines experienced record-breaking heat over the weekend, heavy smoke poured into the region from large fires in the north.
Mark Smith is a meteorologist with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). He works with the agency’s Air Monitoring & Quality Assurance Group. According to Smith, a combination of high pressure and wind from the north has created a thick haze over Southeast Alaska.
“We’ve had a high pressure centered in southcentral Alaska and the upper level flow which is from the North is bringing in the smoke from the Yukon,” Smith says. “There’s probably about 7 or 8 nice sized fires in the Yukon that are directly contributing to the smoke that’s in the panhandle.”
One large fire southeast of Dawson City, has grown to over 100,000 acres in size. There are also a number of smaller fires closer to the border near Haines Junction and Whitehorse. Smith says smoke from those fires will continue to linger in the Upper Lynn Canal this week.
“We’re foreseeing a northerly push of that smoke into the panhandle off and on at least over the next week until the weather pattern breaks down. Once we get some lows moving in it will change the weather pattern and clean out the air.”
Air sampling machines in Juneau recently recorded levels of particulates in the air that are unhealthy for children, the elderly and people with respiratory issues. There are no air samplers in Haines or Skagway. However, Smith says there are ways to estimate local air quality based on visibility.
“Somebody that lives in Haines or somebody that lives in Skagway, they pretty much know how far away the closest mountain ridge is. They know the different visibilities. They can, using the visibility chart on our advisories, come to a good rough estimate of what the air quality would be.”
When wildfire smoke reduces visibility to 2.5 miles, DEC says air quality is unhealthy. When visibility is less than a mile, according to DEC that is hazardous.
The smokiest conditions occur overnight and during the early morning hours, as the atmosphere cools and brings smoke to the surface. During the day, surface heating mixes smoke and carries it upwards, temporarily improving air quality.
Smoke hasn’t been the only issue caused by the wildfires.
A fire that started near Beaver Creek, Yukon, over the weekend forced an evacuation of a nearby campground and closed parts of the Alaska Highway for several hours. The highway has since been reopened, but officials warn that roads can close with short notice depending on the fire conditions.