Late June is always an active time of year for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. People are out in the parks, strolling along the lakeshore, or simply enjoying the fresh air from the comfort of their yards. There’s an underlying aura of excitement in the city as preparations for the 4th of July reach a fever pitch and volunteers prep the grounds of Summerfest for the biggest music festival of the year. Aside from the occasional film of haze in the evening, Canadian wildfires were the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. On Tuesday, June 27th, things took a turn for the worse.
The Clouds Roll In
The first thing I noticed that morning was the sky. Weather reports predicted blue skies and bright sunlight; not a cloud to be seen all day. By all accounts it was to be the most beautiful day of the week. Instead, early birds and late sleepers alike awoke to an ominous gray ceiling that the sun was vainly trying to pierce. The winds had shifted during the night, triggering this alarming transformation. Within a few hours the skies over southeast Wisconsin had been completely overtaken by smoke.
Alerts from the local weather station urged anyone suffering from breathing ailments to stay inside and avoid strenuous activity. Excluded from that category myself, I ventured outside anyways. While the sight of the smoke was bad enough, it was the smell that drove me back inside. The acrid, burning, foundry-like stench left a metallic taste in the mouth that took over an hour to fade. By late morning, air quality went from ‘unhealthy’ to ‘very unhealthy’, finally peaking at a level of 234. For context: according to the air quality index, anything higher than 100 is unhealthy for certain groups. Warnings now applied to everyone to stay inside with their doors and windows shut. Even with the house shut tight and the furnace fan going, the smell still wormed its way in and lingered around the door frames.
The Worst Air in Wisconsin’s History
The smell wasn’t the only thing that worsened as the day wore on. A heavy blanket of smoke obscured the skyline view of downtown Milwaukee, rendering the forest of buildings invisible. Surrounding areas fared even worse. In Waukesha, barely a half-hour drive from Milwaukee, visibility was bad enough to prevent the local Flight for Life helicopter from responding to a serious traffic accident. At this time air quality in Waukesha had reached over 300: officially hazardous. Southeast Wisconsin held the dubious honor of having some of the unhealthiest air on the planet that day.
A Breath of Fresh Air
As luck would have it, winds out of the southeast brought spots of blue back to the sky by Wednesday morning. Warnings were still in place, but the air seemed a little fresher. Donning a facemask, I ventured outside once again. Aside from a neighbor — also masked, retrieving something from her car — my neighborhood had never looked so deserted. Even with the mask, I spent the next several minutes feeling wheezy and nauseous.
As of today, June 30th, Milwaukee still isn’t out of the woods yet. Air quality readings are still in unhealthy range, with many outdoor events postponed or rescheduled. As winds shift and scattered rain showers wash out the smell, the worst of the smoke is expected to blow through in time for Independence Day. Until then, all we can do here is wait. Wait, and hope that Canada gets a heavy rainstorm soon.