Unit 8: Wildfire Smoke Impacts in Iowa

How Wildfire Smoke can Travel to Iowa

Wildfires continue to burn in the western portions of the United States and Canada, but we can see some effects from those right here in Iowa.

Wildfire smoke can be seen on a satellite image, indicated by the arrows.
Wildfire smoke can be seen on a satellite image, indicated by the arrows.(COD/NEXLAB Satellite and Radar)

As those fires grow, the smoke can be deposited in the upper levels of the atmosphere, eventually reaching the jet stream. That smoke can then travel by the high winds in the jet stream. Depending on the pattern of the jet stream, that smoke can then be seen in our sky. Because it sits high up in the atmosphere, we most often see a hazy or milky sky from it. If the smoke becomes thick enough and moves closer to the surface, it can start to impact air quality.

The haziness in the sky can allow for gorgeous sunrises and sunsets in our area as the colors become more vibrant.

Vibrant sunrises and a hazy sky are impacts of upper level wildfire smoke in Iowa.
Vibrant sunrises and a hazy sky are impacts of upper level wildfire smoke in Iowa.(KCRG)

When is an Air Quality Alert issued?

The state of Iowa has been under three Air Quality Alerts so far this year due to the upper-level wildfire smoke. These are issued by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and are based on the number of pollutant particulates suspended in the air and are represented by different colors on the Air Quality Index or AQI.

Air quality continues to worsen across the Midwest. When we start seeing reds on the air quality map, that means being...

Posted by KCRG-TV9 First Alert Weather on Thursday, July 29, 2021

Once that number rises to a certain level, it can become unhealthy for sensitive groups of people to be outside for extended periods of time. Those included in that group would be the elderly, those with respiratory illnesses or heart disease, and children.

Dan Ellickson, an environmental chemist with Linn County Public Health said, “So that the AQI ranges from zero to 500 and what we’re looking at is when the index is over 100 is being the more potentially dangerous or causing more health concerns.”

The Air Quality Branch at Linn County Public Health monitors these levels and the size of the particles makes a big difference.

Amy Drahos is an Air Quality Supervisor and monitors those levels in Linn County, “Particulate matter, especially fine particulates from smoke. Those are a concern because they’re so tiny that they can travel into the lungs, sometimes into the bloodstream, and those as was mentioned previously, can cause a lot of issues with people that, especially people that are sensitive to that.”

Not only do they monitor local levels, but neighboring states to see where those levels are at. The Iowa DNR works with those local monitoring sites like Linn County and will contact the National Weather Service to issue Air Quality Alerts as needed. You can find out the current air quality index by heading to

When the air quality reaches those unhealthy levels, avoid strenuous activity outside, use air conditioning, avoid extended periods of time outside, and plan more indoor activities. Air Quality Alerts are also sent directly to your phone through our First Alert Weather App. You can download the First Alert Weather App by heading to the App or Google Play Store on your device.