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A noticeable haze from Canadian wildfires was visible last August in the Bismarck-Mandan area and covered most of North Dakota. The reduced visibility west of the Grant Marsh Bridge on Interstate 94 over the Missouri River is seen above. 

In recent years it has been common for North Dakota, especially the western and central areas, to be covered by haze and smoke from fires in Canada, Montana and other areas.

It has become so severe that the American Lung Association tagged five of the 10 counties that track air quality in North Dakota with F grades. It’s because of increased levels of particle pollution, according to the association’s 2019 State of the Air report. Burleigh, Dunn, Mercer, Williams and Burke were the counties that flunked. Cass County received a C while Billings, McKenzie and Oliver counties got Ds. There wasn’t enough data to grade Ward County. The state has been on a three-year slide when it comes to the association’s grading.

The low grades should hurt North Dakotans’ pride, but there’s not a lot we can do about other areas’ fires.

Dave Glatt, environmental health section chief for the state Health Department, notes that when it comes to other traditional sources of air pollution the state does well. Power plants and other emission sources are in compliance with state and federal regulations. "The only factor that's really changed is the occurrence of forest fires and the impact on the state," Glatt told the Forum News Service.

Mother Nature plays a role in the number of fires. Glatt points out the region has been in a dry cycle, which means the frequency of fires increases. High winds, which North Dakota is famous for, send the smoke and haze into the state. At the same time, the wind blows other pollutants out of the state. That’s why in the past the state graded high in air quality.

"I think it's not too far of a stretch to say this is global climate change starting to have an impact on the scores," Robert Moffitt, a spokesman for the Lung Association, said. Not all North Dakotans will buy that argument, but the trend has been for more fires. Some of the fires are weather-related and others are the fault of people.

North Dakotans who suffer from asthma or other pre-existing lung conditions, need to be prepared for another summer of smoke. Precautions also need to be taken by the elderly and for the very young. We can hope this summer will see fewer wildfires, but there’s no guarantee.

The association’s report isn’t all bad news for North Dakota. We got A and B grades for ozone pollution and Bismarck ranked ninth on a list of the 25 cleanest U.S. cities year-round for particle pollution.

Maybe the association should place an asterisk after North Dakota in its report to note the pollution comes from other states and Canada. Until we fall into a wet cycle we need to expect more smoke and haze.

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