Wednesday, July 21st

Wildfire smoke clouds sky, hurts air quality on East Coast

By GILLIAN FLACCUS and SARA CLINE Associated Press

A thick haze hangs over Manhattan, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in New York. Wildfires in the American West, including one burning in Oregon that's currently the largest in the U.S., are creating hazy skies as far away as New York as the massive infernos spew smoke and ash into the air in columns up to six miles high. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Smoke and ash from massive wildfires in the American West clouded the sky and led to air quality alerts Wednesday on parts of the East Coast as the effects of the blazes were felt 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers) away.

Strong winds blew smoke east from California, Oregon, Montana and other states all the way to other side of the continent. Haze hung over New York City, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The nation's largest wildfire, Oregon's Bootleg Fire, grew to 618 square miles (1,601 square kilometers) - just over half the size of Rhode Island. Fires also burned on both sides of California's Sierra Nevada and in Washington state and other areas of the West.

The smoke blowing to the East Coast was reminiscent of last fall, when large blazes burning in Oregon's worst wildfire season in recent memory choked the local sky with pea-soup smoke but also affected air quality several thousand miles away. So far this year, Seattle and Portland have largely been spared the foul air.

People in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere with heart disease, asthma and other health issues were told to avoid the outdoors. Air quality alerts for parts of the region were in place through Thursday.

This satellite image provided by Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies shows overview of wildfires from Oregon, Idaho, and Northern California on Sunday, July 18, 2021. Extremely dry conditions and heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP)

The Staten Island Ferry departs from the Manhattan terminal through a haze of smoke with the Statue of Liberty barely visible, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in New York. Wildfires in the American West, including one burning in Oregon that's currently the largest in the U.S., are creating hazy skies as far away as New York as the massive infernos spew smoke and ash into the air in columns up to six miles high. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

"One of the things about this event that makes it so remarkable is that the smoke is affecting such a large swath of the U.S," said Jesse Berman, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and an expert on air quality. "You're not just seeing localized and perhaps upstate New York being affected, but rather you're seeing numerous states all along the East Coast that are being impacted."

David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said wildfire smoke usually thins out by the time it reaches the East Coast, but this summer it's "still pretty thick."

In California, a wildfire burning completely uncontained south of Lake Tahoe crossed the state line into Nevada. New voluntary evacuation orders were issued for portions of Douglas County, Nevada.

The Tamarack Fire, started by lightning in Alpine County, California, has now burned more than 68 square miles (176 square kilometers). Authorities say more than 1,200 firefighters are battling the blaze, which has destroyed at least 10 structures.

In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a tanker drops retardant over the Mitchell Monument area at the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The 569-square-mile (1,474 square kilometers) Bootleg Fire is burning 300 miles (483 kilometers) southeast of Portland in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest, a vast expanse of old-growth forest, lakes and wildlife refuges. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)

Meanwhile, Oregon on Wednesday banned all campfires on state-managed lands and in state campgrounds east of Interstate 5, the major highway that is commonly considered the dividing line between the wet western part of the state and the dry eastern half.

The regulation includes the designated fire rings at campsites, as well as candles and tiki torches. Propane grills are still allowed, but the state still urged campers to pack food that doesn't require heating or cooking.

The lightning-caused Oregon fire has ravaged the sparsely populated southern part of the state and has been expanding by up to 4 miles (6 kilometers) a day, pushed by gusting winds and critically dry weather that's turned trees and undergrowth into a tinderbox.

Fire crews have had to retreat from the flames for 10 consecutive days as fireballs jump from treetop to treetop, trees explode, embers fly ahead of the fire to start new blazes and, in some cases, the inferno's heat creates its own weather of shifting winds and dry lightning. Monstrous clouds of smoke and ash have risen up to 6 miles (10 kilometers) into the sky and are visible for more than 100 air miles (161 kilometers).

In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, columns of smoke rise from the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon on Sunday, July 18, 2021. The threat of thunderstorms and lightning has prompted officials in fire-ravaged Oregon to ask for help from outside the Pacific Northwest to prepare for additional blazes as many resources are already devoted to a massive forest fire. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)

Authorities in Oregon said lower winds and temperatures allowed crews to improve fire lines, and they hoped to make more progress Wednesday. The fire was approaching an old burn area on its active southeastern flank, raising hopes it would not spread as much.

The blaze, which is being fought by more than 2,200 people, is about one-third contained. It was within a few hundred acres of becoming Oregon's third-largest wildfire in modern history.

At least 2,000 homes have been evacuated at some point during the fire and an additional 5,000 threatened. At least 70 homes and more than 100 outbuildings have burned, but no one is known to have died.

Extremely dry conditions and recent heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

While Berman is hopeful that the smoke will last only a couple of days, he said we may see more of it due to climate change.

"We fully expect that you're going to see more situations where smoke, from fires occurring farther away, is going to travel long distances and affect people in other parts of the country," Berman said. "I would not be surprised at all if these events did become more frequent in the future."

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Associated Press video journalists Haven Daley in Minden, Nevada, and David Martin in New York City contributed to this report.

Smoke blocks the view looking toward Manhattan from Yankee Stadium before the Philadelphia Phillies played the New York Yankees in a baseball game Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Smoke from Western wildfires dims the sun before the Philadelphia Phillies played New York Yankees in a baseball game Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, the Bootleg Fire burns in the background behind the Sycan Marsh in southern Oregon on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The destructive Bootleg Fire, one of the largest in modern Oregon history, has already burned more than 476 square miles (1,210 square kilometers), an area about the size of Los Angeles. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)

Tony Galvez, who lost his home to the Tamarack Fire, talks on his phone with his daughter in Vermont who's setting up a GoFundMe for him as he waved and clapped at passing firefighters in Woodfords, Calif., on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. In Northern California, authorities expanded evacuations for the Tamarack Fire in Alpine County in the Sierra Nevada to include the mountain town of Mesa Vista late Monday. That fire, which exploded over the weekend was 61 square miles (158 square kilometers) with no containment. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, the Bootleg Fire burns behind heavy equipment at the Mitchell Monument in southern Oregon on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The 569-square-mile (1,474 square kilometers) Bootleg Fire is burning 300 miles (483 kilometers) southeast of Portland in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest, a vast expanse of old-growth forest, lakes and wildlife refuges. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)

Smoke from blocks the view looking toward Manhattan from Yankee Stadium before the Philadelphia Phillies played the New York Yankees in a baseball game Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Staten Island Ferry commuters take in the view of lower Manhattan seen through haze, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in New York. Smoke from wildfires across the U.S. West, including Oregon's Bootleg Fire, has wafted over large swaths of the eastern United States. David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the skies could be hazy for the next couple weeks. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Staten Island ferry commuters walk past a view of the Statue of Liberty seen through haze, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in New York. Smoke from wildfires across the U.S. West, including Oregon's Bootleg Fire, has wafted over large swaths of the eastern United States. The New York City sky was hazy with smoke from fires thousands of miles away. David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the skies could be hazy for the next couple weeks. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The Met Life and Chrysler buildings glow through a thick haze hanging over Manhattan, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in New York. Wildfires in the American West, including one burning in Oregon that's currently the largest in the U.S., are creating hazy skies as far away as New York as the massive infernos spew smoke and ash into the air in columns up to six miles high. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Spires from the World Trade Center Oculus frame the setting sun barely visible through a thick haze hanging over Manhattan, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in New York. Wildfires in the American West, including one burning in Oregon that's currently the largest in the U.S., are creating hazy skies as far away as New York as the massive infernos spew smoke and ash into the air in columns up to six miles high. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The Staten Island Ferry departs from the Manhattan terminal through a haze of smoke with the Statue of Liberty barely visible, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in New York. Wildfires in the American West, including one burning in Oregon that's currently the largest in the U.S., are creating hazy skies as far away as New York as the massive infernos spew smoke and ash into the air in columns up to six miles high. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a bear cub clings to a tree after being spotted by a safety officer at the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, Sunday, July 18, 2021. As more fire personnel moved into the area, the cub scurried down the tree trunk and later left after being offered water. (Bryan Daniels/Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)

In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a handcrew walks to engage the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon on Monday, July 19, 2021. The Oregon fire has ravaged the southern part of the state and has been expanding by up to 4 miles (6 kilometers) a day, pushed by gusting winds and critically dry weather that's turned trees and undergrowth into a tinderbox. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)

Manhattan is seen from Yankee Stadium through a haze of smoke before a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees, Wednesday, July 21, 2021, in New York. Wildfires in the American West, including one burning in Oregon that's currently the largest in the U.S., are creating hazy skies as far away as New York as the massive infernos spew smoke and ash into the air in columns up to six miles high. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

The U.S. Capitol is visible through a hazy sky from smoke from a window on Air Force One as it flies over downtown Washington, Wednesday, July 21, 2021. President Joe Biden is traveling to Cincinnati for a CNN town hall. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)