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As wildfires rage, Minnesota braces for more smoke

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Close-up of a active city street: Traffic moved along Interstate 35W, with downtown Minneapolis shrouded in smog, as seen from the overpass of East 46th Street.

© Aaron Lavinsky – Star Tribune
Traffic moved along Interstate 35W, with downtown Minneapolis shrouded in smog, as seen from the East 46th Street Bridge.

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DULUTH – Canadian wildfires filling Minnesota’s skies with smoke are showing no sign of abating, and Minnesota health officials are warning that perilous air will persevere to blanket the entire state next week.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is extending an air quality alert that would have expired Friday afternoon until 3 p.m. Tuesday for the entire state. The worst will come on Saturday morning, with a “very unhealthy” forecast for the Twin Cities metro area stretching a wide area north to the Canadian border. The rest of the state is also subject to “unhealthy” or “unhealthy for sensitive groups” warnings.

Health officials said people with heart and lung disease should limit their exposure outdoors, and everyone who can avoid exertion — indoors or outdoors — should do so. Thick smoke that carries fine particles can increase the chances of a heart attack.

Dr. said. Rory Farnan, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Essentia Health in Fargo. “We tend to see it on bad air days in cities all over the world.”

Smoke pours into Minnesota from out-of-control fires burning over half a million acres in Ontario, some of the largest in secluded areas 150 miles north of Lake Forest.

“If you have smoke, you probably get it from the big fires on the Ontario/Manitoba border,” said Chris Marchand, Fire Information Officer for the Ontario Department of Natural Resources.

A group of little fires burn over thousands of acres in Quetico Provincial Park, some just a mile from the Minnesota border. “In the larger scheme of things, we have more fish to fry in terms of our larger regional situation,” Marchand said. He said the Kwetiko fires are being observed but not actively combated.

Ontario has already seen nearly double the number of fires this year — 976 — compared to the 10-year average. The alike drought conditions that plague Minnesota and the American West set the stage for a severe fire season in Canada this summer.

President Joe Biden held a virtual meeting Friday with the governors of several states where wildfires are an crucial problem and told the state’s governor. Tim Walz has been in touch with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and mentioned “the concern about this is on both sides of the border.”

“We’re coordinating as best we can,” Biden said.

Marchand said between 20 and 30 unused fires have been reported each day this week in Ontario, including a little fire caused by lightning in Quitico that broke out on Thursday. There are a whole of 151 active wildfires in Northwestern Ontario.

“It’s raining on us, but it’s not enough to address the underlying drought conditions,” Marchand said. “If we can go two days without unused beginnings, we can tackle fires much better.”

‘Resources are scattered’

Firefighters from Connecticut and other states flock to Minnesota to fight fires and monitor fires at Quetico Provincial Park. Although smaller in size, these fires have closed the Boundary Waters wilderness area to boats and threaten to reach across the border near iron and retort lakes and set fire to parts of the state’s dearest wilderness.

The crew already had a active firefighting season inside the Upper National Forest, and there were nine active fires in the forest on Friday. The largest of these is the Fortown Lake fire, which burned on 220 acres 12 miles northeast of Ely, Sarah Shapiro, a communications officer for the US Forest Service, said.

Shapiro said several teams from out of the state have helped fight the fires in Minnesota this season as “resources are spread out across the state.” It is estimated that they have about 93 firefighters on the ground across the Upper National Forest. Some of these firefighters are from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

For fires caused by lightning fires in the state, Shapiro said there has been no growth recently, although the fire risk remains lofty and there is still a lot of work to do.

“Purges take a lengthy time,” Shapiro said. “They need to feel the heat in their hands and put out any heat they find and repeat this process over and over again.”

Fire restrictions are still in place throughout the forest, and a number of areas have been closed.

From flood to drought

“Our kids can’t be outside,” Walz told Biden, speaking of Minnesota seeing some of the worst air quality readings recorded in the state the day prior.

“The wildfires are causing the worst air quality on record in Minnesota, as we head into our warmest and driest month,” Waltz said in a statement following the meeting. “Climate change is real, it has a direct impact on the lives of the people of Minnesota, and it requires all of us to work together.”

Biden, a Democrat, told the group that “wildfires are a problem for all of us, and we have to remain closely coordinated in doing everything we can for our people.” Walz also focused attention on the worsening drought in Minnesota. He was joined by the governors of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California at Friday’s event.

“Large parts of my state were experiencing drought, and unprecedented drought, two years ago in unprecedented flooding situations,” Walz said during the meeting. “So these massive fluctuations are going to persevere, collaboration, communication, and I think creative thinking as we hear here from a lot of these conservatives is going to be required.”

Author Alex Sheth contributed to this report.

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