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Wildfire smoke clouds sky, hurts air quality on East Coast

  • A thick haze hangs over Manhattan Tuesday in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

PORTLAND, Ore. — 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 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.

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The nation’s largest wildfire, Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, grew to 616 square miles — 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.

“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 65 square miles. Authorities say more than 1,200 firefighters are battling the blaze, which has destroyed at least 10 structures.

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.

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The Oregon fire has ravaged the sparsely populated southern part of the state and has been expanding by up to 4 miles 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.

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