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Wildfire smoke the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to air pollution, haze, North Dakota official says

Prolonged, severe drought has produced massive wildfires outside the region that emit heavy smoke that has caused unprecedented air quality problems in North Dakota and Minnesota.

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The outlook for this year indicates another active wildfire season as severe drought continues.
WDAY file photo
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BISMARCK — The leading culprit in polluting North Dakota’s air and shrouding widespread areas in a thick haze drifts in from from the American West and Canada.

Wildfire smoke originating outside the state is by far the biggest source of air pollution in North Dakota and has been increasing as a severe drought continues, according to the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.

The haze problem has gotten worse in recent years. Last summer, North Dakota and Minnesota experienced extended periods of unhealthy haze caused by wildfires in the West and Canada.

The Red River Valley and much of Minnesota experienced what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency called an “unprecedented significant air quality event” in late July and early August of 2021 when winds carried Canadian wildfire smoke to the area, and cooler air near the surface helped trap the haze.

The air quality, deemed unhealthy for all people, was so bad that outdoor performances at Trollwood Performing Arts School were canceled and many swimming pools in the Fargo-Moorhead area were closed.

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In the latest plan for reducing haze, North Dakota environmental officials reported that sources outside the state’s control account for as much as 80% of diminished daylight in haze-protected areas, including Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Lostwood Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Area.

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A red sunset cuts through a smoky sky over a sunflower field north of West Fargo on Saturday, July 31, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

At Lostwood, North Dakota’s oil and gas sector is projected to be the largest man-made contributor to visibility impairment by 2028, accounting for 13% of overall impairment, followed by coal-fired power plants at 5%. Natural sources including dust account for 12%, and 22% is attributed to a natural light-polarizing effect, according to state environmental officials.

At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, human-caused emissions are the largest contributor of haze, accounting for 31% of light diminishment by 2028. The largest contributor to decreased visibility is the oil and gas sector at 9%, followed by coal-burning power plants at 2%. Natural sources accounted for 13%, and the natural light-polarizing effect accounts for 27%.

“North Dakota experienced long episodes of perceptible visibility impairment from summer through fall of 2020,” the report said. “While 2020 was one of the worst fire years on record, it was not unusual regarding noticeable adverse impacts to North Dakota’s visibility in recent years.”

Wildfire smoke from the American West and Canada shrouding the state was even worse in 2021, which wasn’t covered in the report, and the outlook for this year indicates another active wildfire season as severe drought continues.

“They’ve been getting worse,” David Stroh, an environmental engineer for the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, said of wildfires. “They’re projected to get worse.”

Wildfire smoke drifting in from outside the state “is the single-largest contributor to visibility impairment we deal with,” Stroh said, although emissions control efforts are concentrated on coal-burning power plants and the oil and gas industry, major contributors of man-made air pollution.

“I think it’s important for the public to know what the real elephant in the room is,” he said. “That’s wildfires in the summer.”

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The sun sets Monday, Sept. 14, behind a tower of the 45th Street Colonnade, Fargo. The sky is especially hazy due to smoke from California wildfires suspended in the upper atmosphere. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

North Dakota's air-pollution control plan, still in draft form, calls upon the federal government, “applicable state governments,” federal land managers, private industries and others to work collaboratively to “take on the forest management challenges.”

The U.S. Forest Service, in fact, is carrying out a strategic, 10-year plan to address the massive western wildfire problem, exacerbated by years of persistent and severe drought. The plan calls for the Forest Service to treat up to 20 million acres on national forest lands, and up to another 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal and private lands.

The wildfire crisis is caused by a combination of overgrown forests, a warming climate and more than a century of “rigorous fire suppression,” according to the Forest Service, which manages millions of acres of national forests.

Although smoke from wildfires in western and Canadian forests has caused the most significant air quality problems, last year’s drought produced an active wildfire year in North Dakota and Minnesota.

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Springer, Patrick

In North Dakota, about 2,400 fires burned 125,000 acres, mostly grassland. Most of the acres burned during extreme fires in the spring, when high winds fanned the flames.

Treating just 30% of acres by thinning trees and undergrowth can reduce the threat of wildfire, said Lezlee Johnson, forestry and fire management team leader for the North Dakota Forest Service, which is joining the U.S. Forest Service initiative.

“You don’t need to treat every acre in order to have a huge impact,” she said. For years, for example, the North Dakota Forest Service has been thinning the ponderosa pine forest in the Badlands south of Medora in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and private landowners.

“It’s impressive how much healthier you can make a stand,” Johnson said.

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Last year was also one of the most active wildfire years in Minnesota history. The most notable fire was the Greenwood Fire, which burned almost 27,000 acres, much of it in Superior National Forest.

In recent years, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has worked to improve its air quality forecasting and alert system. Refinements continue, with increased use of forecast and maps.

The MPCA also is increasing its network of air quality sensors, especially in northern Minnesota, to better detect smoke from forest fires, including those in Canada, a major source of the smoke and haze in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Successive snowstorms and rain storms have added significant moisture to very dry areas of central and western North Dakota that should help alleviate the wildfire threat this year, Johnson said.

Wildland fire outlook July 2022.JPG
Springer, Patrick

Wetter conditions also mean Minnesota is likely to have a less smokey fire season than last year, according to an outlook from the MPCA . A National Weather Service meteorologist said wetter conditions also have prevailed in areas of Canada that produced heavy wildfire smoke last year, so the area’s smoke problem should be less severe.

But an outlook by the National Interagency Fire Center said fire activity in the southwest already is above normal, and experts predict another year of extensive wildfires in the West.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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