Wildfires have raged across Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee in the past month as a result of a combination of arson and a significant rain deprivation. As a result, officials have had to warn communities in WNC of harmful air quality.
Air quality is ranked on a level from 0-500, or “green” to “maroon.” The air in Western North Carolina has been classified as “code purple” on multiple occasions in the month of December. Because it is only one step down from the highest ranking, this “code purple” air has had noticeable impacts on the area, including students and teachers from Roberson.
School nurse, Lynn Smarjesse, sent an email to teachers on Nov. 14, saying that people with the highest risk of symptoms should take precautions to avoid exposure as much as possible.
“Drinking water to keep your airways moist is key. It also helps you to flush out your system and get rid of all of those toxins,” Smarjesse said.
Although air quality had created some reactions among students, Smarjesse said that no real absences were a result of the smoke in the air.
According to data, 60 percent of school absences are typically caused by asthma. However, based on Roberson’s attendance record and notes, Smarjesse said there were no absences throughout the course of the wildfires directly caused by asthma complications.
“I didn’t have any notes from students having to miss school due to asthma. When I look at the attendance every day, I didn’t see any big spike,” Smarjesse said.
However, other issues connected to the air did come up. The pre-season for varsity girls’ soccer was postponed from its traditional date of late November due to air quality concerns. Coach Joshua Martin believed this action was in the best interest of his players. Pre-season practices will begin Dec. 15.
Smarjesse noted that people age 75 and over and 12 and under are the greatest affected by harmful air quality. Consequently, the childcare program was required to limit time outdoors to the maximum of an hour.
“The preschool and our P.E. classes have a lot of good indoor space, and I think they were very good at limiting outside time. They were just affected in their change of schedules,” Smarjesse said.
The recent rain showers have played a major role in putting out the forest fires and therefore lessening the harmful air conditions. As a result, the North Carolina Forest Service has lifted the burn ban in more than 100 counties, but 15 counties have continued to implement the ban due to sustained drought conditions.
As of Dec. 6, 47 counties in Tennessee remained under the Governor’s ordered burn ban. According to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, these bans prohibit open-air burning of brush, vegetation and construction debris, as well as campfires.
Although residents in Gatlinburg are still coping with the recent deaths and property loss due to the fires, air quality in Eastern Tennessee has recently been moved to code “green,”posing little or no risk.
“[The air quality here] was the worst I’ve ever seen, and I’ve lived near Los Angeles before,” Smarjesse said.
To thank the firefighters who have risked their lives fighting back the flames, Roberson’s National Honors Society plans on hosting a fundraiser at a local restaurant. A percentage of proceeds from a particular night will be given to the club, which will in turn be given to these firefighters.
“We were told in the middle of last week that it would be great to have a drive. Originally, the firefighters actually needed simple things like chapstick, ” history teacher Josh Lowe said. “And now, we have actually been told that they’re overloaded on supplies, which is great. So we are going to do a fundraiser instead.”
While plans are still in the works for the location and time of the fundraiser, Lowe said that he hopes to contact some of his friends who work as local firefighters and see if they have a fund that the proceeds can go to.