Imagine being stuck in a room full of smokers.
That’s what being exposed to smoke and haze from the western Carolina wildfires is like for some people who have breathing problems.
“There are some similarities to second-hand smoke. It’s an irritant,” said Dr. Emmanuel Sarmiento of Allergic Disease and Asthma Center of Greenville and Spartanburg.
Wildfires near Lake Lure in North Carolina and in Pickens County South Carolina continued to burn Monday and create smoke and haze that has covered many parts of the Upstate, with no relief expected anytime soon.
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Although weather conditions slowed the Pinnacle Mountain fire’s progress some, the fire is still mostly uncontained, according to Pickens County emergency management officials.
The National Weather Service issued a “code red” air quality alert for many parts of Western North Carolina and an air quality alert through midnight Tuesday for the Upstate of South Carolina. You can find the weather service’s Air Quality Forecast Guidance graphic here.
A code red alert advises people to limit prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors, while the air quality alert advises limiting outdoor activities.
Because of a stable weather pattern with little wind and no rain, the smoke and haze could get more dense on Tuesday and stick around much of the week, according to the weather service.
Allergy and asthma doctors say they’ve had more complaints from patients about the heavy smoke and haze from the wildfires.
“It’s the small, fine particles that’s causing problems for those patients,” said Sarmiento, at the asthma center.
Patients who feel it most are the young and elderly and people with chronic lung conditions, such as emphysema, he said.
Symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, itchy and watery eyes.
Dr. Jamie Lagos of Allergy Partners Foothills in Moore said the lungs’ natural reaction is to contract and form mucous to get rid of the irritants.
For healthy people without allergies or asthma, the smoke and haze can still be bothersome. But it’s those who are exposed to smoke consistently over many years who develop chronic, long-term lung problems, Lagos said.
Both Lagos and Sarmiento said over-the-counter drugs won’t help much. Neither will face masks, which will trap large particles but not small ones found in smoke.
The best advice: Get indoors.
“Staying indoors more, having windows closed and the heater or air running, is what you can do,” Lagos said.
Residents near the Pinnacle Mountain fire in Pickens County have been asked to remove fire fuel like leaves, mulch and dry vegetation from around their homes in hopes of stopping the fire’s spread.
Pierre Womack, deputy director of Pickens County Emergency Management, said the public has been asked to avoid the areas near Highways 11 and 178 to reduce congestion around the fire.
No evacuations were expected Monday, but residents should remain vigilant, Womack said in a statement.
Sunday, workers used bulldozers to build a fire line on the south end of the fire, near Table Rock Reservoir, Russell Hubright, a spokesman for the S.C. Forestry Commission, said in a statement.
Sprinkler systems were also installed along portions of the South Saluda River to help beat back the flames, he stated. Sunday, the fire was burning across 2,312 acres and was only 25 percent contained.
Firefighters from local volunteer departments and Forestry Commission crews — about 140 workers in all — planned to go door-to-door Monday to inform area residents of the status of the fire.
Smoke could get worse
Last week, the S.C. Forestry Commission issued a burn ban for the Upstate, which is still in effect.
Joshua Palmer, a National Weather Service meteorologist at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, said Monday was the most intense the smoky haze has been so far in upper South Carolina.
Tuesday could be worse, though, he said.
“It’s possible (Tuesday) morning could see levels as bad as we have today, if not slightly worse,” he said Monday.
The smoke varies in intensity across the area, and it is generally more concentrated in northern parts of the Upstate.
Palmer said if the wind changes direction to blow the fire elsewhere, the smoke could dissipate.
But winds are likely to keep the smoke flowing into the region for the next several days, Palmer said.
“The way the atmosphere is right now, we’re not mixing that smoke into the higher parts of the atmosphere,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s confined to the lower parts of the atmosphere, where we’re breathing it.”