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THURSDAY, MAY 24, 2007
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Smoke from the wildfires near the Florida-Georgia border fills the air in the Tennessee Valley.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
Smoke from the wildfires near the Florida-Georgia border fills the air in the Tennessee Valley.

Hazy days in May
Smoke from Florida, Georgia wildfires continues to drift to Valley

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com 340-2469

If the hazy smoke that settled over the Tennessee Valley on Wednesday was a problem for you, get ready because you will probably see and smell it again.

A high pressure system off the Eastern Seaboard and southeast winds will continue to push smoke from wildfires in Georgia and Florida into the area, said Brian Carcione of the National Weather Service in Huntsville.

Smoke plumes from the wildfires, which can be a health hazard because of particle pollution, have reached the area twice in eight days.

In the immediate future and probably through Memorial Day, there appears to be no rain on the way to help firefighters in southeast Georgia and northern Florida.

"This means we are going to be in a situation where we periodically see smoke coming to the area," Carcione said.

Need to stay inside

Dr. Mahipal Ravipati, an allergy and asthma specialist with offices in Decatur and Huntsville, said he advises everyone to stay inside when the smoke is as bad as it was Wednesday morning.

"What people have to remember is that smoke is not an allergen," he said. "It's an irritant with a lot of toxin, and it's very, very powerful."

Ravipati said he does not have allergies, however, he felt uncomfortable walking to his Huntsville office Wednesday morning. Shortly afterward, two patients walked into his office with asthma attacks.

"It's very important for people to stay in, keep the doors and windows shut, and run the air conditioner," Ravipati said.

He said people shouldn't spend time outdoors when the smoke is dense.

Wednesday's smoke was out of the area by 2 p.m. But before the wind shifted, it prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a warning to area airports.

A spokeswoman at Rountree Field in Hartselle said the warning is designed to let incoming pilots know of conditions in the area.

Carcione said visibility was so bad at the airport in Muscle Shoals that officials were worried about landing small planes.

At Huntsville International Airport, there were no cancellations or delays.

"It was business as usual," Public Relations Manager Laura Gipson said.

There are no wildfires in the Tennessee Valley, but conditions are favorable for one. That's why the Weather Service issued a red flag warning Tuesday.

"We're concerned about the wind and humidity," Carcione said. "Right now, the conditions are favorable for a fire to spread quickly if it starts."

The National Forest Service issued an order Wednesday morning prohibiting the use of fire in Alabama's four national forests. The order is effective immediately and extends through July 31.

"Conditions are so dry across the state and any careless act with matches, campfires or grilling could potentially cause a hazardous wildfire," Miera B. Crawford said.

Crawford supervises national forests in Alabama, which includes a portion of Bankhead National Forest in Lawrence County.

The order also prohibits the use of fireworks and pyrotechnic devices in national forests.

"We are urging users to be responsible and refrain from the use of any open fires or fireworks during these hot and dry months," Crawford said.

The order is in place for an extended period because it's unlikely that the Tennessee Valley will receive any significant rainfall soon.

Through Wednesday, the Huntsville area was 15 inches below normal for the year. Since January 2005, the area is down almost 4 feet of rain.

Asked about the possibility of rain, Carcione said: "I don't have good news about that."

He said he expects it to remain dry through Memorial Day.

"The problem is the drought is feeding itself," Carcione said. "Because it is so dry, there is no moisture in the air to feed rain clouds."

Although the area has not had a wildfire, there have been seven calls for hay fires and woods on fire in Limestone County in the past seven days, according to Athens-Limestone County 911 records.

Most of the fires have been in the eastern area of the county with East Limestone Volunteer Fire Department responding to three of them.

Athens Fire Chief Cliff Christopher said there was one illegal burn in the city Wednesday, but it did not get out of hand.

"We've been handling this by not issuing any burn permits until the city gets substantial rain," Christopher said.

Lack of rain also is hurting firefighters in Georgia and Florida where fires have scorched more than 500,000 acres.

"A tropical storm is probably what they need to get those fires under control," Carcione said.

Until then, it's highly likely that North Alabama will continue to get smoke plumes because the area is in the path of the southeast wind.

"This is going to be a pattern, especially during the holiday," Carcione said.

Without the smoke, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is rating air quality in the Huntsville area as moderate, which means that sensitive people should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.

Staff Writer Holly Hollman contributed to this story.

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