Smoke from California's massive wildfires is being swept thousands of miles across the US

By Mark Puleo, AccuWeather staff writer
August 15, 2018, 7:14:55 PM EDT

While the entire country remains captivated by the wildfires raging in California, the effects of those fires are spreading far beyond the West Coast. In recent days, winds have been lifting and carrying smoke particles all the way across the country and landing in cities like New York City.

The smoke currently hangs about a mile above East Coast cities, too high above the surface to cause any concern. However, a shift in winds or effects from the jet stream could pull that smoke closer to the ground level. While those possibilities are unlikely, they would increase the risk of respiratory issues.

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"I think it's very unlikely that enough smoke from fires will make it to the East Coast to become hazardous," AccuWeather Meteorologist Jake Sojda said. "Daily chances for showers and thunderstorms will help clean out mid- and low levels of the atmosphere of particulate matter. At most, what any high-level smoke would bring to the East is some very picturesque sunrises and sunsets."

Smoke particles and smog have created uniquely red sunrises and sunsets in recent years as the frequency of wildfires has grown. The particles work as a sunlight filter to allow more orange and red colors of the light spectrum to pass through.

AP smoke sunset 8/3

The sun sets over the Olympic Mountains, made a brilliant red because of smoke from fires raging in British Columbia that swept down into the Puget Sound region, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The worst of the fires may still be ahead, as the blazes are expected to continue expanding for the next few months due to dryness and wind. Air quality concerns have been an issue for Californians all summer, as light winds and heat have trapped the smoke from escaping ground level.

For East Coast citizens, that concern could spread as well, as those worsened fires will spread more smoke across the country.

wildfire july73118

A wildfire crests over a ridge, threatening a home, bottom right, Monday, July 30, 2018, in Lakeport, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

“As we move into September and October, if we get strong strong high pressure in the East, it can certainly trap smoke near the surface in the East for several days,” Sojda said.

Even if the spread of smoke may not be a health concern for people on the East Coast this year, Sojda said it is possible for those risks to heighten in future years.

"If wildfires continue to worsen in the West in coming years, then smoke could also certainly worsen in the East,” he said. "It’s usually a matter of the timing and duration of high-pressure systems moving from the northern Plains to the East that determines whether this smoke stays high in the atmosphere or becomes trapped closer to the surface."

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