Sussex Fire Chief Colin Curtis woke up this morning to the smell of smoke.
He then started driving around the Sussex area to see if anyone might be conducting some sort of “burn pile,” on a day he said was much too windy for something like that.
That's when he received the information about smoke from a Minnesota wildfire migrating over Wisconsin and and even Michigan. The U.S. Forest Service is requesting additional assistance in controlling and extinguishing the 60,000-acre Pagami Creek fire.
Local fire departments and law enforcement agencies all across metro Milwaukee are fielding phone calls from concerned residents regarding the smoky haze, and Department of Natural Resources Air Monitoring Section Chief Bart Sponseller said the smoke is only getting worse.
“The winds are bringing the smoke from (Minnesota) down over eastern Wisconsin,” Sponseller said. “Now the poorer quality (from) the smoke is in southern Wisconsin — Milwaukee, Waukesha … we’re seeing elevated hourly concentrations at those sites.”
The fire started from a lightning strike on Aug. 18 in Minnesota, as reported by Superior National Forest. The wildfire spread to burn more than 11,000 acres just east of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and spread an additional 60,000 acres Tuesday.
“We haven’t gotten any official recommendations, but in general, when there is a problem with air pollution, people with respiratory problems should stay inside and limit activities,” Ann Brandstrom, a nurse with the North Shore Health Department said.
The DNR will not issue air quality warnings until levels surpass accepted 24-hour measurements set by the federal government — which hasn't happened, Sponseller said. But, that doesn’t mean people aren't affected.
Deputy Chief Jim Case of the Wauwatosa Fire Department said his crews answered calls from Children's Hospital and the Heart Hospital of Wisconsin because of concerns the hospitals might have had fires.
Smoke from the wildfire "got pulled into the air-handlers," Case said. "It hadn't set off alarms, but they could smell it."
Katie Bucholtz, a Fox Point resident, said in a Facebook post that her family and friends are also noticing the smoke in other parts of Wisconsin.
"My mom in Lake Geneva called to tell me about it and now I have a friend in Spring Grove, IL that can smell it too. I shut my windows and now my throat doesn't hurt anymore," she said.
Menomonee Falls Fire Chief Jeffrey Hevey said the department took just one call, but — from listening to Waukesha County radio — all the fire departments are going out frequently on smoke investigations as not everyone has gotten the word where the smoke is coming from.
Brookfield Fire Chief Charlie Myers said dispatchers were fielding an unknown number of calls from residents about the smoke.
"If you walk outside, you can definitely smell it," Myers said.
Hope for the winds to turn westerly or southerly, he said, to move it away.
He said it was unusual for Wisconsin, which usually is not close enough to large wildfires to get wafting smoke like Western states experience.
"It's a little different," he said.
Sponseller said, “We are working closely with the Department of Health because they can address the short-term elevated fine particular issues."
“In healthy people, symptoms of smoke exposure usually include irritation of eyes, nose and throat, or breathing discomfort and more severe symptoms may include chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing,” a press release from the DNR explained. “Smoke exposure can aggravate chronic lung or cardiovascular disease.”
While concerns of health issues are an obvious factor in the smoke cloud hovering over Wisconsin, it’s not the only concern.
North Shore Fire Department Chief Robert Whitaker said it’s important to not write off the smell as smoke related to the Minnesota wildfire. They’ve already received one call about a smoke smell that turned out to be a grass fire.
“If you think something's wrong, still investigate. Don’t just write this off to the smell of smoke,” Whitaker said.
So, what of this uncommon, giant “plume” of smoke that is, indeed, lingering in Wisconsin?
“What we believe is that the plume will move southward, and it will continue into Illinois and South,” Sponseller said, adding that the wildfire is likely to continue growing in Minnesota — and time will tell whether the weather sends more smoke our way.
More about the wildfire and the smoke:
- The smoke moving through the area is from a large wildfire in Pagami Creek, MN.
- A satellite image shows the smoke plume.
- DNR is monitoring the values and is aware of this smoke incident and will issue advisories if necessary.
Patch Local Editors Andy Ambrosius, Lisa Sink, Jim Price and Carl Engelking contributed to this story.