Although a smoky haze from a New Orleans marsh fire continued to hang over Baton Rouge on Wednesday, the condition is expected to improve as weather patterns change towards the end of the week.
Winds are expected to continue to bring smoke from the marsh fire in eastern New Orleans to the Baton Rouge area for the next couple of days, said Danielle Manning, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Slidell.
“The good news is we expect the wind to strengthen,” she said. That will help dissipate the smoke better, starting sometime Thursday.
In addition, a greater chance of rain is expected later this week and into the weekend, with a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms Thursday.
That pattern will continue through the weekend with between a 20 percent to 50 percent chance of thunderstorms, according to the weather service.
“If we’re going to get wind and rain, that’s always good for air quality,” said Tim Bergeron, environmental chemical specialist with the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Bergeron said there have been higher than normal levels of particulate pollution measured in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Port Allen and even in Lafayette.
Particulates are very tiny pieces of material in the air as a result of fire. This particulate pollution can cause health problems because the material is so tiny it can get deep into a person’s lungs.
DEQ issued an air quality alert for Baton Rouge on Wednesday morning because of particulate pollution and said children and the elderly should refrain from spending too much time outside.
The air quality forecast for Thursday is expected to be slightly better, according to DEQ’s forecast email.
Even though emergency responders and law enforcement received hundreds of calls Tuesday about the smoke, state Department of Health and Hospitals public information officer Meghan Speakes said the agency had not seen any increase in the number of people getting medical attention due to the smoke.
Mark Olson, East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services spokesman, said EMS received 400 calls between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tuesday from people asking about the smoke in the area and where it was coming from.
Information about calls for service due to the smoke was not available, he said Wednesday.
When the sun started going down Tuesday, many residents in and around Baton Rouge reported seeing much heavier smoke than was detected during the day.
There are a couple of reasons for the heavier smoke occurring at night, including that typically the winds that can help disperse the smoke die down during those hours and that allows the smoke to settle closer to the ground, meteorologist Manning said.
In addition, at night there can be a “temperature inversion” where the air at higher altitudes is warmer than the air at the surface, which prevents mixing of the air columns. That can keep smoke closer to the ground as well, she said.
The higher winds expected in the next few days should help both of those situations, Manning said.
In the meantime, people who have asthma or other health problems are being told to take precautions and limit their time outside.
On Wednesday, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System issued a health alert and asked principals to keep students with any respiratory problems inside school buildings for the day, according to Chris Trahan, school system spokesman.
Principals were told by email Wednesday morning, and phone calls were made to each school to announce the alert.
It’s expected the alert will continue until weather patterns change and the air quality improves, he said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Trahan said, there were no reports of an increase in students with breathing problems seeking medical attention in the schools.
While south Louisiana waits for wind and rain, the Louisiana National Guard continued firefighting efforts at the marsh fire.
By Wednesday evening, the Guard had dropped 582,000 gallons of water on the fire, according to a Guard news release.
The Guard started dropping water on the fire Tuesday at the direction of Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Lt. Col. Michael Kazmierzak, public affairs officer with the Guard, said pilots reported seeing positive results from the airdrops.
Weather conditions and how effective the airdrops have been will determine how long the Guard continues fighting the fire, he said.
According to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the fire began Friday and was caused by a lightning strike in the area, said Sam Irwin, press secretary for the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
As of Wednesday, it was estimated that 1,050 acres of the 1,550 acre marsh have burned.
The area on fire is contained within water-filled canals and open water. Irwin said it has not been confirmed that the fire is burning the organic soils underneath the marsh.
“It (fire) is likely to spread to the edge of the natural containment area unless it is extinguished by rain or by suppression efforts,” Irwin said.
There was a second fire of 24 acres east of the marsh fire, but that one has been contained, Irwin said.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals posted a fact sheet about smoke, air quality and health on Monday. Here are some of the tips:
• Young children and people with chronic respiratory disease, such as asthma, emphysema or bronchitis, are more sensitive to smoke.
• Smoke may irritate the eyes, nose and throat.
• For healthy people, the effect will disappear in a few days. People with health problems could find the smoke triggers problems, including an asthma attack.
• It’s recommended that people with health issues stay indoors.
• Keep windows and doors closed.
• Run an air conditioner, but keep the fresh-air intake closed.
• Watch for changes in the wind direction.
• Limit the amount of time spent outside.
• Take medication as directed by your doctor.
• Contact your doctor if you have health concerns.
• Single strap or surgical masks will provide little, if any, protection.