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Burning smell in D.C. area probably drifted from North Carolina fires

Fire departments across Maryland, Virginia and D.C. received several calls from people reporting something burning

Pollution map shows code yellow or “moderate” air quality from Richmond to Washington because of smoke particulate matter. ( (
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That burning smell in the Washington air on Monday?

It probably blew here from wildfires in North Carolina, according to the National Weather Service and local fire department officials.

“Out of all the calls, and we keep receiving them, there is no source of smoke in Montgomery County. We believe it is from the large fire in North Carolina,” said Lt. Franco Martinez, a spokesman for the county’s fire and rescue service, which was flooded with calls about the smoke smell.

Fire departments in Virginia and D.C. also received such calls.

So did the National Weather Service’s regional office in Sterling, Va., said Brian LaSorsa, a meteorologist there. Based on wind patterns, he said, the smells are probably coming from northeastern North Carolina.

“We’re smelling smoke, and I think it’s most likely coming from that area,” LaSorsa said.

Fairfax County officials had similar explanations. “Low wind speeds in our area prevent the odor and haze from dispersing,” the county’s fire and rescue service wrote in a tweet.

Fire and medical services responded to Island Creek Elementary School in Alexandria, where students on Monday reported “experiencing symptoms related to the smoke and haze from the wildland fire in North Carolina that is in the area,” said Bill Delaney, a spokesman for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.

“Just two students not feeling well were involved” and were taken home or to see their doctor, Delaney said. A spokeswoman for Fairfax County schools said she could not disclose students’ medical details.

Weather models indicate that low-level winds, around or below 2,500 feet, have been generally blowing from eastern North Carolina toward D.C., Maryland and Virginia at about 20 to 45 mph since early Monday morning.

That probably was strong enough to transport the smoke into the D.C. area by about midday, especially because the smoke had already been drifting away from the fire.

In addition, weak winds around the D.C. area and a temperature inversion — in which warmer air layered above cooler air keeps air trapped near the ground — were probably contributing to the buildup of smoke in the region. It is not uncommon for smoke to travel great distances. Occasionally smoke originating from wildfires on the West Coast is seen on the East Coast, nearly 3,000 miles away, a few days later.

Research shows that smoke from far away can degrade air quality and increase asthma-related visits to hospitals.

Air quality measurements around the D.C. area accessed at showed moderate levels of air pollution as of midday Monday. The website advised that “unusually sensitive people … keep outdoor activities light and short. Go indoors if you have symptoms.”

Winds arriving from the northwest Monday evening should disperse the smoke, with good air quality returning.

Arlington County Fire Department Capt. Justin Tirelli said his agency has received a steady stream of calls about the smoke from concerned residents starting around 11:30 a.m.

“The dispatcher said people have been calling all day,” Tirelli said.

Tirelli said the Arlington department had even sent out firetrucks to some reports of the smell of smoke but found nothing.

Emily Davies, Justin Jouvenal and Sal Rizzo contributed to this report.