Smoke from distant wildfires saturated the Columbia area Tuesday, cutting visibility on area roads, increasing respiratory problems and causing residents to ask when the air would finally clear.
But it could be days before the smoke is gone.
“We are looking for it hanging around for a while, unfortunately,’’ National Weather Service forecaster Doug Anderson said.
Fires that have burned thousands of acres in the mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina are pushing smoke toward communities like Columbia that are outside of the fire zone.
The National Weather Service issued a “code orange” air quality alert Tuesday morning, warning that smoke from the wildfires could affect parts of the Midlands – including Richland, Lexington, Kershaw, Newberry, Fairfield, Sumter and Lee counties.
Code orange means children and adults, including those with respiratory diseases such as asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor exposure.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control recommended keeping windows and doors closed, keeping fresh-air intakes for air conditioning and heater units closed and keeping filters clean.
“If you can smell smoke outside, or if you’re in a situation where you’ve got a lot of eye or throat irritation just from going outside, then the recommendation is to stay inside as much as possible,” assistant state epidemiologist Dr. Melissa Overman said.
The health concern is from fine particulate matter, often referred to as soot. Overman said particulates in the smoke will aggravate most lung conditions, chronic respiratory conditions and some heart conditions. Pound per pound, children take in more air than adults and should avoid spending too much time outdoors, Overman said.
Anyone exposed to smoke exhibiting shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, profound fatigue, an irregular heartbeat or an increased heartbeat may want to talk to their primary care provider, she said.
“Those are all symptoms of your body trying to get more oxygen,” Overman said, noting that dust masks available at hardware stores will not help.
The National Weather Service said light winds in Columbia allowed the smoke to linger over the city Tuesday.
“The smoke is kind of trapped,’’ Anderson said. “It doesn’t have anywhere to go.’’
Visibility was 1.5 to 2 miles Tuesday in the Columbia area because of the smoke. Visibility normally is 7 to 10 miles on a clear fall day, weather forecasters said.
High pressure ridges mean winds will be light for several more days and remain out of the west and northwest, Anderson said. Winds may shift and get stronger by Saturday, but that isn’t expected to be enough to clear the air.
While Columbia has issues, the Upstate of South Carolina will be affected more profoundly because it is closer to the fires.
The S.C. Forestry Commission reported the fire at Pinnacle Mountain in Pickens County had burned 2,312 acres with 25 percent containment as of Monday morning.
State Forestry Commission spokesman Russell Hubright said the Pinnacle Mountain fire is in an area north of S.C. 11 and east of U.S. 178 in Pickens County.
The fire is adjacent to Table Rock State Park, a well-known visitor destination northwest of Greenville. The fire is touching the Jocassee Gorges nature preserve nearby, according to the Forestry Commission.
At this point, the Forestry Commission says mountain fires have not extended from North Carolina into South Carolina. The Pickens fire is a local blaze, Hubright said. So far, the fire has not touched Sassafras Mountain, the state’s highest peak, he said.
But Hubright urged people to stay away from S.C. 11 and U.S. 178 in Pickens County as a precaution.
“It’s very smoky,’’ he said. “Roadways are a concern, especially in the evening and in the morning. Folks with respiratory problems are having a lot of challenges. It’s across the Upstate, and unfortunately, there is no great relief in sight.’’
Hubright said a soaking rain would be the best hope, although chances of that remain slim, as of now.
The fire is not unprecedented, but it “is the largest fire in Pickens County that we can remember in recent times,’’ he said. So far, no one has been injured, he said.
A burn ban for all Piedmont counties – including Abbeville, Anderson, Cherokee, Chester, Edgefield, Fairfield, Greenville, Greenwood, Laurens, Lexington, McCormick, Newberry, Oconee, Pickens, Richland, Saluda, Spartanburg, Union and York counties – is still in effect, according to the Forest Commission.
The ban prohibits outdoor burning. This does not include campfires and open-fire cooking, though the commission encourages residents to refrain from any unnecessary burning.
To learn more about the potential health effects of wildfire smoke, visit scdhec.gov.