Alaskans want to get outside in the summer. But this year, they’ve had to ask whether that’s wise in all this wildfire smoke. Most of the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage have been covered in a smoky haze for the last four weeks from the Swan Lake fire near Sterling.
As of Tuesday morning, the fire was just shy of 99,000 acres, with 406 personnel actively working to contain it. The fire is emitting a wide cloud of smoke.
Northeastern winds have brought wildfire smoke to the Homer area as well.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has issued an air quality advisory for the whole Kenai Peninsula from Monday through Wednesday this week, with the severity depending on winds.
Dr. Carey Gear, the medical director at SVT Health and Wellness in Homer says that wildfire smoke contains particles of ash but not the carbon monoxide associated with smog or sulfur dioxide found in volcanic ash.
“It’s primarily going to effect the very young and the very old, people who have chronic lung disease, emphysema, heart disease and smokers. And then also people that have seasonal allergies. It’s going to irritate the membranes and make that worse," said Gear
Dr. Gear says that the health effects from the smoke are likely to be limited, as Homer residents don’t live in the smoke year-round. He says a good way to tell whether it’s a good idea to go outside is to look across Kachemak Bay.
"If you’re in town in Homer on the main drag and you can see all the way across the bay, if you can see the mountains—they don’t have to be clear, but if you can see the mountains then there’s at least 14 kilometers visibility. If you’re healthy, get out and enjoy your day. Do your activity no problem,” he said, " It’s when it gets down to about 8 kilometers or less that it’s a problem. If you’re in the main drag and you can’t see the end of the spit, that’s under 8 kilometers and if you’re healthy, they would recommend reducing or rescheduling your activity"
But what if you have to be outside for work or just can’t afford to stay home? Joe McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health, says that those who have to be outside should wear a mask like an N95 industrial mask if the advisory becomes serious enough. Children are also likely to be more sensitive and generally spend more time playing outside, so he recommends parents be vigilant about the advisories issued by the DEC and have their children play inside on particularly smoky days.
Generally, if the advisory isn’t severe, he says it’s still safe for healthy people to go out and enjoy the short Alaska summer.