June 14, 2023

Area Air Quality Improves, But Residents Should Be Aware as Fire Season Continues

By Wendy Greenberg

Last week’s poor air quality because of billowing and blowing smoke from wildfires in Canada hit Central New Jersey and Princeton hard. And it may not be the last time, as weather experts say a warm and dry season can cause more fires.

But for now, there is good news: the air quality has improved and Monday’s soaking rain has lowered the danger of area brush fires.

On Tuesday, Jeffrey Grosser, Princeton’s deputy administrator for health and community services, said, “Mercer County/Princeton is back into good/green air quality based upon the Air Quality Index (AQI).”

Grosser suggested that “residents should continue to monitor wildfires in our area due to the abnormally dry season we are having.” The weekend saw assorted fires, now controlled or out, in parts of New Jersey such as Browns Mills, Evesham Township, and Lakehurst.

Princeton’s Director of Emergency and Safety Services Michael Yeh said that because of rain this week, the area is in a better position than it was previously, when the New Jersey Forest Fire Service of the Department of Environmental Protection called for Stage 2 fire restrictions.

The nonprofit group Sustainable Princeton has issued information about staying safe in wildfires. The organization suggests making a safety plan for climate emergencies. “Unfortunately, wildfires, extreme weather, and floods will occur more frequently as our climate changes,” the group said in a statement. “We need to be prepared for them now.” The Sustainable Princeton website at sustainableprinceton.org has tips to get started on a safety plan.

As of Tuesday, “Princeton and the state of New Jersey are in a Moderate Fire Danger Rating,” said Yeh. “This is a step below High and a step above Low. That has been updated after the rainfall last yesterday into today.”

Yeh said that before the rain, there was a concern about restrictions such as outdoor grilling, but “the rain lowered the fire danger. We’ll see what happens this summer.”

Last Thursday, because of the Canadian wildfire smoke, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued a Code Red, and a Code Orange for last Friday. Weather reports indicate the peak of the nation’s wildfire season is occurring earlier in the year, a season that used to peak in August.

The AQI runs from 0 to 500 with the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern, explained Grosser. “Last week, as a result of the effects from the Canadian fire, smoke impacted our area Wednesday, Thursday, and part of Friday. During this time, the AQI for Princeton was specified as unhealthy and even hazardous at times.” 

Advisories were distributed by the Princeton Police Department and Health Department advising residents to stay indoors. 

As conditions improved,  sensitive residents, such as those with heart or lung disease, older adults, children, and teens, were also advised to remain indoors in cases of bad air quality, Grosser said.

“In the event residents needed to go outside, KN95 or N95 masks may provide some protection by filtering out fine particles in the smoke,” he said.

Grosser said that exposure to poor air quality can worsen chronic respiratory conditions, like asthma, cause respiratory discomfort, and lead to increased risk of respiratory infections. However, there are “likely no long term health effects for most groups during a short period of exposure. Residents were reminded to limit outdoor activities when air quality is poor and to keep track of the current air quality.”

This past week, with more a dozen forest and brush fires across New Jersey, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service  announced tougher restrictions on outdoor burning during the Stage 2 fire danger, of a three-tiered system of fire burning restrictions.

During Stage 2,  the restrictions allow for an elevated charcoal grill or stove using electricity or a liquid or gas fuel. An elevated prepared fireplace must be constructed of steel, stone, brick or concrete; elevated at least one foot above the ground; and surrounded by a mineral soil radius no less than 10 feet. The fire service asks to make sure there are no other combustible materials around. It also issued a prohibition against burning leaves, grass, or trash.

The Forest Fire Service updated its restriction based on Monday’s rainfall. However, the office has reminded residents: don’t discard cigarettes, matches, or smoking materials on the ground; contact your nearest Forest Fire Service office for information on how to obtain a Campfire Permit; don’t leave fires unattended — douse them completely, until cold to the touch; keep matches and lighters away from children and teach youth about fire safety; and use wood stoves and fireplaces carefully, since both can emit embers that spark fires. Fully douse ashes with water before disposal.

Both Yeh and Grosser suggested monitoring statewide fire danger and fire restrictions at the New Jersey Forest Fire Service: nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/fire/infotools.

Grosser also suggested that for more information regarding how to protect oneself from bad air quality, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at cdc.gov/air/wildfire-smoke.