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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Canadian wildfire smoke descends in an unhealthy haze over Minnesota

By Anna Betts and Ernesto Londoño

As a gray cloud and a pungent smell moved through the Twin Cities earlier this week, normally bustling bike lanes and running trails were largely deserted. Several commuters wore high-quality masks as they made their way home.

The air quality reached unhealthy levels in Minneapolis, St. Paul and much of Minnesota on Wednesday, as the Upper Midwest became the latest pocket of the country to have its air fouled by smoke drifting south from wildfires that have been burning across Canada for weeks.

As in New York and much of the East Coast last week, Minnesotans were looking to the skies and to the air quality index to make sense of what was going on around them. On Wednesday, Minneapolis and St. Paul recorded air quality index readings above 250, which the Environmental Protection Agency advises is “very unhealthy” for most people.

The smoke spread across other parts of the Upper Midwest, too. Eau Claire, Wisconsin, had an air quality index reading of 190 on Wednesday evening, and Fargo, North Dakota, a reading of 180.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued an air quality alert through Friday that warned that the air would be unhealthy for everyone in a stretch of the state roughly from the Twin Cities in the east to the state’s western border.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board canceled all outdoor programming because of the air quality. But in St. Paul, a small group of young men pushed through the unhealthy conditions to attend soccer practice at a university athletic field.

“It’s the first time I’m seeing it this bad,” said Nuh Suleiban, 21, sounding short of breath. “It’s not good to be playing ball in this weather.”

Nick Carletta, one of the lead meteorologists at the Twin Cities office of the National Weather Service, said the conditions Wednesday were reminiscent of a spell in 2021, when wildfire smoke engulfed the state.

“We had similarly bad air quality in 2021. The numbers were kind of in the vicinity,” Carletta said.

Now, he said, some of the largest fires are burning in British Columbia, and the wind is blowing from the central western region of Canada toward Minnesota.

The state pollution control agency said that the air quality should improve for northern Minnesota on Thursday, but that smoke would continue to linger across much of the southern part of the state.

And this might not be the last of the smoky skies this year. The possibility of poor air quality in Minnesota and other parts of the United States will continue, Carletta said, “as long as these fires keep on going in Canada.”

Sarah Hick, 53, said she was startled when she walked out of her office Wednesday to commute home on her bike. To get through the 5-mile ride, she wore an orange KN95 mask.

“It was so smoky,” she said. “But with the mask I was able to not smell the smoke.”

Hick said she had watched the seemingly apocalyptic images from New York and hoped that the Midwest would be spared.

“I thought we were over it,” she said as she walked her dog Tango, once again wearing a mask.

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