Then the first angel sounded his trumpet, and hail and fire mixed with blood were hurled down upon the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, along with a third of the trees and all the green grass.
— Revelations 8:8
No one in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, about 500 miles northeast of Ulster County, has yet reported hearing any trumpet blasts preceding the onset of the worst wildfire to strike anywhere in this part of the country in over 20 years. But then again, no one who has seen the inferno’s flames, which are said to have reached over 30 stories high, can rule out any sound until the hellscape has receded.
After eleven days and over 20,000 hectares consumed, the fire has not yet been stopped, though it has slowed down and been rained upon.
In the active and lurid prose favored by news organizations all over the world, the blaze roars, ravages, rages and devours, It’s eaten over 60 homes and cottages as well as 150 additional structures. Thousands of people living near Halifax, Nova Scotia’s main city, have been forced to flee for their lives, taking what precious possessions they can.
Which would normally be a Canadian problem. But a hazy, orange smoke has found us here in the Hudson Valley, where a sick sun hath risen for the second day in a row to shine a strange and apocalyptic light over inland and water.
Views from the Rhinecliff Bridge showcase a smoky haze hanging so thickly in all directions that it resembles the dusty penumbra of a desert sandstorm. This is particulate matter, dense and hanging in the air. In large amounts it can be hazardous to breathe.
Because wind conditions have been favorable to the blaze, this fallout of the fire has been lifted and delivered far and wide. Residents living anywhere in a thousand-mile swath east to west from Providence, Rhode Island to Chicago, Illinois and south from Norfolk, Virginia north to the Champlain-St. Bernard de Lacolle border crossing and hundreds of miles further into Canada are living under a sour, burnt-toast-smelling, drifting shadow.
Under that cloud, an air-quality monitoring station has been quietly collecting data on the roof of the Andy Murphy Neighborhood Center on Broadway in Kingston since 2020.
“So it’s a weather station combined with air-quality monitoring,” says Eli Dueker, co-director of the Center for Environmental Sciences and Humanities at Bard College. Dueker and the community sciences lab staff installed the equipment on the Andy Murphy roof to measure the particulate content in the air.
“The EPA measures air quality in two ways,” explains Dueker. “particles that are 2.5 microns and smaller, they call that PM 2.5. Those are considered fine particulates, and 2.5 microns and above, what’s called PM 10.”
Fine particles, Dueker explains, are small enough to make it through the respiratory system. Some of them are so small they can even go directly into the bloodstream through the lungs.
“The coarser aerosols can also enter the body,” says Deuker. “Those particles are about ten microns. And they are the ones that can still cause irritation, but can’t get as deep into your respiratory system. So they’re not good, either. But they’re not the ones that EPA is most worried about in terms of long-term health effects. We’re looking at the small particles that are in the air that make this smoke so nasty.”
As a result of the smoke from Nova Scotia, the Air Quality Index (AQI) for Kingston, as provided by the Bard website, shows levels of fine particulate matter currently classified as “unhealthy.” The Bard outpost has assigned the present output a color code of fire-engine red on a six-color scale. The color green represents ‘good’ air quality, and a burgundy wine color represents levels of particulate matter considered hazardous. Amounts are also displayed in micrograms cubed. Current readings show the particulate amount is at ten times the safe level, As of the afternoon of June 7, 121.53 μg/m 3 was the current reading. A safe level is 12 μg/m 3 or lower.
It’s a perverse feature of particulate contamination that its minuscule size increases the danger.
“It’s gravity,” says Duerker. “The smaller the particle, the longer it stays in the air. So if you throw a ball in the air, right, it’s gonna come down much faster than the tiny microscopic droplet of water. So the smaller particles not only are worse for us, but they can travel further. That’s why we can have this-bad air quality and health concerns based on fires that are happening in Canada.”
According to the EPA the individuals more likely to be affected by particle pollution exposure are people with heart or lung diseases, people with diabetes, and those less than 18 years old.
“Fine particulates are the product of any kind of burning,” says Dueker. “So if you’re burning oil, gas or wood, the process of combustion is not complete, ever. And so it creates microscopic pieces of matter that get thrown into the air. I would say that wood smoke, that is probably worse than a cigarette.”
Dueker points out that most cigarettes come with a filter. Campfires do not.
In terms of the effect on human beings, Dueker considers wood fires worse than coal fires. “In the Hudson Valley, we love our fires,” says Dueker. “We love being outside and you know, I do just as much as anyone else, but it’s really the unfortunate reality.”
Word is finally coming out of Canada that the fires are coming under control, that the firefighters are traipsing through smoking dirt fields still hot to the touch to search for stubborn flames that might still be smoldering.
Until the wind swings around from the north, the Hudson Valley is stuck with particulate matter blown from across the Bay of Fundy showering down like a nuclear winter, too small to see up close with the naked eye but refracting a hazy light in the distance.
The Kingston Air Quality Initiative (KAQI) began in January 2020 as a partnership between Bard’s Community Sciences Lab and the City of Kingston Conservation Advisory Council’s air quality subcommittee.
For information about air quality, visit the Bard Center for Environmental Sciences and Humanities webpage at https://tributary.shinyapps.io/AMNC_live/