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Swamp fire smoke could affect New Orleans for months, city emergency head says

In this aerial photo, responders are seen near wreckage in the aftermath of a multi-vehicle pileup on I-55 in Manchac, La. on Oct. 23, 2023. A “superfog” of smoke from south Louisiana marsh fires and dense morning fog caused multiple traffic crashes involving scores of cars.
Gerald Herbert
/
AP
In this aerial photo, responders are seen near wreckage in the aftermath of a multi-vehicle pileup on I-55 in Manchac, La. on Oct. 23, 2023. A “superfog” of smoke from south Louisiana marsh fires and dense morning fog caused multiple traffic crashes involving scores of cars.

Some say it smells like burnt coffee or rubber.

Smoke from a swamp fire in New Orleans East has been raising health concerns for residents this week.

Air quality in areas along the river was ranked “moderate” for level of concern Friday morning, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Since then, the smoke has somewhat dissipated — but the fire causing it continues to burn.

Collin Arnold, the city’s head of disaster response, sat down with Louisiana Considered host Bob Pavlovich to discuss the health risks and provide an update on the situation.

The smoke is from a fire fueled by underground debris in a marshy area near Bayou Sauvage. Arnold said it’s producing a lot of smoke but few visible flames and isn’t likely to spread.

Last week,

Firefighters have contained the blaze and are using three high-capacity pumps supplied by the city’s Sewerage and Water Board to pump water from surrounding canals into the area.

Arnold described the process as “tedious” and said it doesn’t yield immediate results.

“The problem is we need rain,” he said.

The weather forecast for the next week doesn’t call for any significant rain — and it’s been that way for a while.

On average, Louisiana has had just 5 inches of rain since the beginning of August, leaving almost all of the state in some state of drought. Fortunately, an extra rainy winter is forecast starting in December.

The city expects to have up to six additional pumps from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to accelerate the process, by Monday. Still, Arnold says the fire will likely keep burning and smoke could continue to be a problem for the next two months.

Wildfire smoke can cause health risks, particularly for at-risk groups, including children and those who have asthma, COPD or cardiovascular disease, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has more than a dozen air monitoring stations in the New Orleans area. Residents can visit LDEQ’s website to see the current levels of particulate matter and health risk ratings in their area.

The air-monitoring station in the Lower Ninth Ward this morning registered unhealthy levels, though the quality has since improved and air remained at healthy levels throughout much of the rest of the city.

Arnold said the city wants to collect more air quality data and recently purchased sensors that will be placed at all 20 of its weather stations. Once they're installed, likely during the first week of December, real-time data will be available to residents, he said.

To stay safe, Arnold urged residents to sign up for NOLA Ready emergency alerts, suggested wearing K95 or KN95 masks and heading indoors whenever air quality dips or you notice symptoms like stinging eyes, runny nose, chest pains or coughing.

For those who are sensitive to smoke, limiting outdoor exposure is essential, Arnold said. “It doesn't mean you can't go outside at all, but just limit your time outdoors.”

He also stressed the importance of preventing additional fires by respecting the statewide burn ban that has been in effect for several months. That means no fireworks, fire pits, burning trash, or throwing cigarette butts out of cars where it can easily ignite dried out grass.

The city is distributing free K95 and KN95 masks at four locations: New Orleans East Public Library, Joe W. Brown Recreation Center, Sanchez Multi-Service Center, in the Lower Ninth Ward and Algiers Regional Library on Holiday Drive.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.
Bob Pavlovich, a long-time fill-in host for New Orleans Public Radio, joined the station full-time in 2023. He hosts "All Things Considered" and "Louisiana Considered" on Thursdays.

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