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11smoke for WEB only/MD

Hazy sky caused by Boundary Waters fire

By Jeff Hansel

jhansel@postbulletin.com

If you smell smoke in Rochester and the sky looks especially hazy, there’s a reason.

A hazy cloud of smoke from fires raging in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota has extended past Rochester.

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A fire burning in the BWCA since last weekend has burned about 85 square miles, including territory in Canada. Overall, the BWCA encompasses about 1,500 square miles.

About half of the popular 57-mile long Gunflint Trail has been evacuated. Now, smoke from the fire is blanketing much of the eastern part of the state, including Rochester.

"We just happened to be in the right wind-flow from that direction today," said Todd Shea, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wis.

People with asthma should be especially cautious until the smoke clears, said Dr. David Lowe, an asthma and allergy specialist at Olmsted Medical Center.

"Anybody who has any type of chronic respiratory problem should probably try to spend more time indoors," Lowe said.

Dr. Jerry Volcheck, a Mayo Clinic allergist, agrees.

"Try first going out for a short period of time to see what effect it has," he said. Volcheck said stay close to home until you know how your body will react.

He also said people with asthma should carry their emergency inhalers "on their person" until the smoke clears the area. Some people might have no breathing trouble at all, some might cough and some might have severe difficulty breathing.

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"It’s really hard to know," Volcheck said.

He said signs to seek medical care immediately include:

• Wheezing

• Shortness of breath

"If there’s any question in their mind about it, they should call," Volcheck said. "And certainly if they’re breathing fast, feeling like they’re not getting enough air, they would need to be seen."

Smoke began drifting over the area Thursday night, according to the weather service Web site (weather.gov/lacrosse).

But Shea said he expects the smoke to continue to dissipate as it moves southward.

Smoke can drift many miles when weather conditions are right, he said, noting that when several fires burn at once in Canada, Minnesota can get the smoke. The BWCA is about 300 miles northeast of Rochester

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Lowe said people in general should be more cautious about exercising for the next couple of days and, if they exercise, do so in air-conditioned environments -- especially if they have asthma. Smoke from fires may contain chemicals that can exacerbate previously existing lung problems and cause new ones, Lowe said. Sunlight plus smoke causes a chemical reaction that creates more dangerous compounds, he said.

But there's a positive to the situation.

Rochester-area residents could see unusual sunsets this evening as a result of the smoke in the air. They will tend towards a "more-orangey" color than normal, Shea said.

While no major injuries have been reported with the BWCA fire, 46 structures have been destroyed.

"I’m looking outside now, and boy you can’t see far at all," Volcheck said shortly after 2 p.m. today. The effect of the smoke is so uncertain, that Volcheck said even people without breathing trouble should lay low until the sky clears, especially if exercise is involved.

"I would recommend taking the day off, or do something indoors," he said.

The weather service says the wind is expected throughout today to be from the northeast. It will change to the southeast by Sunday, and the sky should clear.

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