Georgia fires cast smoky haze over region

Georgia fires cast smoky haze over region

1 May 2007

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Ga., USA — On the day the air quality report card was released by the American Lung Association, smoke from fires in neighboring Georgia settled over the Palmetto State like a summer haze.

“We’re getting reports from all of our dispatch centers around the state that the smoke is everywhere,” said Scott Hawkins, spokesman for the S.C. Forestry Commission. “It’s from Georgia, we’ve arrived at that conclusion.”

On Tuesday, that smoke appeared heavy at times in western Orangeburg County as well as parts of Calhoun County.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Hunter Coleman said the massive cloud of smoke resulting from the fires was being reported as far away as Sumter, where visibility has dropped from a typical 10 miles to seven miles.

“If it’s thick enough, it’ll show up on satellite,” Coleman said of the wall of smoke. “Down around Savannah, it’s really heavy on satellite.”

Ironically, the smoke turned up in the South Carolina Midlands on the day the American Lung Association released its annual “State of the Air: 2007,” a state-by-state report card on America’s air quality.

In the Palmetto State, ozone pollution improved while particle pollution worsened, according to the ALA’s report. The report ranks cities and counties most polluted by ozone, 24-hour particle pollution and annual particle pollution. These reports are then compiled county-by-county for populations at risk from unhealthful levels of the most dangerous forms of air pollution. Scores are computed from a three-year period, 2003, 2004 and 2005.

Orangeburg County, according to ALA, didn’t have complete data for all three years. However, in neighboring Barnwell and Aiken counties, the data resulted in a grade of A for each.

Meantime, June Deen, vice president of ALA Public Relations, said that regardless of the report card, the incoming smoke from Georgia could pose potential problems for those in the Midlands with chronic breathing difficulties.

“I think a lot of people will suffer from respiratory illnesses in the weeks to come” as a result of the smoke, Deen said. “People need to be careful.”

The mixed-grade report card for South Carolina arrived as a south-southwesterly wind blew in smoke from the 80,000-acre wildfire raging in southeast Georgia. The main fire that began on April 16 has burned 125 square miles of forest and swampland over the past two weeks near Waycross, Ga., located about 130 miles southwest of Savannah.

Firefighters from several states, including South Carolina, have joined the contingent of emergency personnel battling the blaze about 260 miles southwest of Orangeburg County. More than 150 firefighters have about half of the fire contained.

Meteorologists have issued a forecast for eastern Georgia communities that calls for “patchy smoke.” But here in the Palmetto State, winds from the south carted the smoke to areas across South Carolina and upper Georgia.

Deen said that in Atlanta there has been a Code Orange ozone warning issued for today. Orange is the middle of five warning levels that should translate into a red flag for those with respiratory health conditions.

At Code Orange, strenuous exercise or outdoor activity should be limited.

Locally, the hazy conditions didn’t go unnoticed.

“I didn’t know what it was,” said North resident and Orangeburg County magistrate Cecil Moore. “I thought it was somebody burning trash, but then I saw it was all over the place.”

About 30 miles from Waycross, another fire broke out late Saturday, burning at least 700 acres, said Buzz Weiss, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. It posed no immediate threat to people living in the area.

Since the fires began, at least 22 homes have been destroyed in Ware County, Ga.

Firefighters were patrolling a 16-mile stretch of U.S. 1, which links Waycross with Jacksonville, Fla., and set controlled burns to prevent the blaze from spreading into acres of forest beyond the road. That highway remained closed Saturday.

“We are still in the throes of a very, very difficult effort and we anticipate this fire burning intensely for at least another week — and maybe another month,” Weiss said.

And weather conditions over the next couple of days are expected to remain about the same — winds from the south to southwest with no rain — which leaves Orangeburg and the Midlands downwind to the smoke.

“The forecast is more of the same,” Coleman said. “We could see more of this (Wednesday).”

Those with chronic respiratory illness are encouraged to stay indoors where possible and avoid the smoke, particularly before the sun’s heat can dissipate much of the haze.

“Unfortunately, the smoke is adding to a difficult time for people who already suffer from chronic lung disease,” Deen said. “You should follow the forecast of the Environmental Protection people.”

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