Northern haze blankets Md.

Smoke of Canadian fires drifts across mid-Atlantic

July 08, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

A haze smelling like burning wood blanketed much of Maryland yesterday as summer winds carrying smoke from forest fires raging in Canada moved over the state.

The ashen shroud from central Quebec is expected to linger over Maryland through today, when, the National Weather Service predicts, winds will shift and push the smoke over the Atlantic Ocean.

The unusual phenomenon does not pose serious health problems, though people with asthma and other respiratory ailments were advised to be cautious and limit time outdoors.

"I don't think there is anything intrinsically dangerous about forest-fire smoke, but if you have respiratory problems, you don't want to exert yourself," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner.

Beilenson said that asthmatics should carry inhalers when outside and runners should stop jogging if they experience any problems. "People ought to be a little more cautious," Beilenson said, though he added that the smoke isn't as dangerous as ozone.

The weather service said conditions did not warrant issuing an air quality advisory. Area hospitals contacted yesterday said they have not seen an increase in patients because of the weather.

The haze put views into a soft focus and reduced visibility at area airports. Visibility, the weather service said, dropped to two miles at Martin State Airport in Middle River and to three miles at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

But BWI spokeswoman April Thompson said the haze did not cause delays or otherwise affect flights. "It's certainly something aircraft can handle, even if visibility gets worse," she said.

Boaters on the Chesapeake Bay called the Coast Guard to ask what was happening, as visibility dropped to a mile. "It's pretty much all over the radio," said Petty Officer Brian Dietz in Baltimore. He said he did not know of any accidents caused by weather conditions.

Visitors at Baltimore's Inner Harbor said they couldn't help but notice the haze and smoky smell yesterday afternoon.

"It makes it seem like 8:30 at night," said Irma Fennessey, 65, of Essex, who added that the haze had detracted from her walk around the sights with her sister. Off in the distance, the National Aquarium was blurred. Looking upward, Fennessey asked, "Where is that sun?"

The pall has been creeping down the Atlantic coast at 12,000 feet above sea level for several days. Winds flowing from Canada brought the smoke first over New England and then to the mid-Atlantic states. It reached as far south as eastern Virginia and North Carolina, said Jackie Hale, a weather service spokeswoman in Sterling, Va.

It blew into much of Maryland yesterday morning. Satellite images from the afternoon showed that the thickest swath of smoke had at that time blanketed most of the state.

Dave Jones, a meteorologist who is president and chief executive officer of Storm Center Communications, an Ellicott City company that has a government grant to use satellite imagery to explain weather, said a high-pressure system hovering over the region was pushing the smoke and its odor down to the ground so people could sense it.

"We haven't seen anything like this in a long time," Jones said. "It's more common in the Midwest because our winds are usually from the west to the east, and when they have forest fires in the Rocky Mountains, people can see it in Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa."

Harford County police reported a deluge of calls from concerned and curious residents, who had not seen advisories explaining the haze posted on the Web and on cable television's Weather Channel.

People venturing outdoors thought it would rain, looked for a nearby fire or worried about the health consequences.

"I wondered if we should be out walking in it," said Pearl Imber, 67, from Pikesville, who decided to visit Fort McHenry and stroll around the Inner Harbor with her husband, only to find the views obstructed.

The plume was expected to give sunset and sunrise a reddish hue, Hale said. The spell should pass later today when a low-pressure system over Maine gives way and shifting winds blow the smoke eastward, instead of south.

At least 50 forest fires about 500 miles north of Montreal are responsible for the overcast conditions, the weather service said. The fires, sparked by thunderstorms Tuesday and still burning, have consumed 375 square miles of forest.

The Associated Press and Sun staff writer Jason Song contributed to this article.

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