Smoke From Big Western Fires Drifts East to Chicago, NYC, Boston

Wildfires ravaging the western U.S. are so big and widespread that their smoke is now clouding skies on the other side of the country.

The hazy overcast is drifting eastward, settling in from Chicago to New York and up to Boston with little in the forecast to suggest it is going anywhere anytime soon, said Bob Oravec, a senior branch forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. The hallmarks of high-altitude smoke -- gray-white skies and striking orange sunsets -- will continue, he said.

The atmospheric overlay comes as the Bootleg blaze in southern Oregon has swelled to become the biggest among scores of current wildfires engulfing the western U.S. Historic droughts and searing heat exacerbated by climate change have touched off a cascading series of wildfires throughout the U.S. West, playing havoc with electric grids and creating water shortages for farmers and local residents.

There are currently 83 large fires burning in the U.S. with all but one are in the West. Through July 19, more than 35,000 wildfires have burned more than 2.5 million acres across the U.S., according to the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center. While the number of fires is above the 10-year average the amount of acreage is below.

Smoke From Big Western Fires Drifts East to Chicago, NYC, Boston

Some 89% of 11 western states are in drought, the highest percentage in the 21-year history of the U.S. Drought Monitor, said Dave Simeral, an author with the service and a climatologist with the Western Regional Climate Center.

For more: Western Wildfire Smoke Delays Flights Into Denver Airport

Bootleg is about 30% contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and officials have ordered mandatory evacuations in some areas. While firefighters are battling to control its southern flank, the agency expects “significant acreage increase” on its eastern side. This is happening on the heels of last year’s blazes that amounted to the most expensive disaster in Oregon history. A study found that June’s deadly Pacific Northwest heat wave was intensified by greenhouse gas pollution.

The fire now ranks as the fourth-largest in the state in records dating to 1900, and could move up the list as it continues to expand, said Courtney Travis, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. She said the area isn’t expected to get any rain soon and temperatures will climb through the week, fueling the blaze. It could be weeks before firefighters have it contained, she said.

Despite its size, the Bootleg blaze hasn’t affected many communities because of its wilderness location.

“It’s a rather remote area,” said Travis. “That’s probably the only good thing about the fire.”

While a few air-quality alerts have popped up across the eastern U.S., mainly for ground ozone, the smoke itself won’t cause the massive alerts that blanket the western states closer to the flames, according to Oravec at the Weather Prediction Center.

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