‘Worst air quality in more than a decade’: Wisconsin communities continue to deal with wildfire smoke

From irritated eyes to nasal congestion, doctor shares ways to relieve health impacts of smoke

A haze from Canadian wildfires is seen over Milwaukee.
A haze from Canadian wildfires is seen over Milwaukee, Tuesday, June 27, 2023. The haze from Canadian wildfires, which, along with higher ozone levels is continuing to create low visibility conditions and lead to air quality alerts throughout the area. Morry Gash/AP Photo

Smoke from Canadian wildfires continues to impact the air quality across much of Wisconsin, leading to cancelations of summer school and community activities in southern Wisconsin.

As of Wednesday afternoon, air pollution levels were at “very unhealthy” levels in much of south central Wisconsin, including Dane, Dodge, Grant Sauk and counties. Much of the rest of the state, including Milwaukee, Waukesha, Appleton, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Wausau and Rhinelander, had “unhealthy” pollution levels.

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It’s the second day in a row that smoke has filled Wisconsin’s air with fine particulate matter and caused a smoky haze to blanket the state. An update from the state Department of Natural Resources called conditions “the worst air quality in more than a decade” for Wisconsin. This type of pollution can cause difficulty breathing, especially for people who are older, those with heart or lung disease, children and pregnant people.

A graph of ways to protect yourself from poor air quality due to smoke.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has issued an air quality warning for the state due to smoke from Canadian wildfires. The agency recommends the public stay indoors and take precautions. Graphic courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Dr. Jared Darveaux, asthma, allergy and immunology specialist at Gundersen Health System in Onalaska, said the smoke will likely have the biggest impact on people with asthma, COPD or another lung disease like cystic fibrosis. But he said even people without an airway disease could be experiencing symptoms due to the poor air quality, including a cough or a burning sensation in their eyes.

“A lot of people have symptoms related to their upper airway as well, their nose specifically,” Darveux said. “They can feel congested, they can sneeze a lot, they can have more drainage, and if that is bad enough that can certainly contribute to sinus headaches.”

He said people with seasonal allergies are likely feeling even worse as they deal with the smoke and the grass pollen season.

Darveaux said the biggest advice is to stay indoors as much as possible. If someone is experiencing symptoms, he said there are some measures that could help:

  • Try rewetting eye drops or “artificial tears” to help with eye irritation.
  • Use nasal rinses or sprays to help clear out particulate matter irritating the upper airway.
  • Stay on top of seasonal allergy medications if needed and regular medications for airway diseases.

Darveux said anyone with lung disease who feels like their regular medication isn’t keeping up with their symptoms should call their doctor.

My clinic, we’re getting a lot of phone calls, and I think urgent cares and ERs are seeing more people coming in with uncontrolled symptoms related to the smoke exposure,” he said.

While people may be feeling the impacts of smoke now, Darveaux said it likely won’t continue after the air quality improves. He said there isn’t a lot of long-term data on intermittent smoke exposure, but it’s unlikely to have a significant risk to people’s health.

Madison Metropolitan School District announced Wednesday morning that all summer school classes were canceled due to the worsening air quality. The district also canceled all sports practices and activities for youth and adults offered through Madison School & Community Recreation.

Breese Stevens Field, an outdoor stadium in Madison, also canceled a concert scheduled for Wednesday evening, citing an advisory from Public Health Madison & Dane County. Concerts on the Square postponed their Wednesday night performance, the first of the organization’s season, until Thursday.

In Baraboo, Circus World closed for the day because of air quality conditions. A Facebook post from the National Historic Landmark site said they hope to reopen on Thursday.

The City of Waukesha’s Parks, Recreation and Forestry department canceled outdoor activities Wednesday morning because of the poor air quality, but announced they would resume in the afternoon. The city first canceled programs Tuesday and closed community pools.

In the Milwaukee area, a number of outdoor activities and programs were canceled Wednesday, including an outdoor concert hosted by Milwaukee Downtown.

Brian Charlesworth, fire marshal for the Waukesha Fire Department, said they haven’t seen an increase in medical emergency calls related to the poor air quality. But he said they have responded to more requests for smoke investigations.

“We have received some additional calls for service for individuals that felt like there was something burning in their neighborhood,” Charlesworth said. “In some cases, they thought it was just too strong to be the smoke from the wildfires, but that was indeed the case.”

He said air in the city has been hazy and there is a distinct smell of burning in the air, making the concern by residents understandable.

Air quality is expected to improve by Wednesday evening. The current statewide advisory is in effect until noon on Thursday.

The DNR recommends that people limit their time outdoors, close their windows and consider wearing an N-95 mask if a person must be outside for a prolonged period.