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UPDATE: Cleaner air expected in Va. on Thursday after wildfire smoke triggered a health alert

Smoke from wildfires burning across central Canada and the western United States is casting a hazy, potentially harmful pall over Virginia.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued a health alert on Wednesday morning, effective for the remainder of the day.

The pollution monitors in the Roanoke area and elsewhere in the state have been in the “code orange” category, which is a rare concentration for our area and considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.


Observed air quality index across Virginia and the surrounding region on Wednesday morning, showing code orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups) due to wildfire smoke that originated in Canada and the western U.S.

During code orange conditions, people with heart and lung diseases and active children and adults should limit or reschedule any strenuous outdoor activity.

The small particulate matter found in wildfire smoke can aggravate asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.


Observed air quality index across the nation on Wednesday morning, showing code orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups) in Virginia due to wildfire smoke plumes (shaded in grey).

Monday’s air quality was in the moderate (code yellow) range across most of Virginia as the latest smoke plume began to move into our region from the northwest. But much of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast had code orange with pockets of code red yesterday.

The smoke also gave a more colorful look to the recent sunsets and sunrises. Scattered storms are possible later today, so those clouds may affect the visibility of the next sunset.

What’s causing this?

Large wildfires burning in central Canada near the border of Manitoba and Ontario are the main culprit for the smoke in our region and elsewhere in the Northeast.

But generally, smoke from fires throughout the western United States is also fanning out to the east along the curving path of the high-altitude jet stream. On Wednesday, satellites detected smoke layers spreading as far south as the Rio Grande and as far northeast as Canada’s Maritime provinces.

Climate change is worsening the hotter and drier weather patterns in western North America, which is an important factor contributing to the more extreme fire behavior in recent years.

Early in the week, that smoke was mainly well above ground level in Virginia, so we were able to witness a smoky-tinge to the sun and moon without breathing degraded air.

But more of that smoke reached ground here on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. According to Dan Salkovitz, meteorologist at the DEQ, this was due to two factors: subsidence — descending air — along with convergence ahead of a cold front crossing the Appalachian mountains. On Tuesday afternoon, improved air quality was already showing up in western Pennsylvania, western Maryland and West Virginia.

The sticky air mass ahead of that front also worsened the haze.

“When the humidity is up, the water vapor is up, the particles grow in size because they’re hygroscopic,” said Salkovitz. “They’re absorbing.”

When will it get better?

Some short-term improvement is expected in Virginia on Thursday due to a cleaner, drier air mass blowing in behind a cold front.

The DEQ predicts good air quality (code green) for Richmond, Roanoke, Winchester and Hampton Roads. The smoky air will take longest to clear out of southeastern Virginia, however.

Dew points on Thursday will range from the mid-50s to lower 60s across the commonwealth, versus the haze-inducing mid-60s to lower 70s that were widespread on Wednesday.

In the long-term, we may see more smoky days. Those distant fires continue to burn, and the ingredients for an active fire season in the Western U.S. will persist into the fall. If the jet stream pattern returns to a similar setup in the weeks ahead, with a wave rippling down from Canada to the Great Lakes, more smoke could come our way.

And if cold fronts fail to sweep the polluted air out to sea, high pressure systems could trap residual smoke as well.

What do the readings mean?

Air quality is broken into color coded categories based on health risk, and focuses on two major types of pollution: ozone and particles.

Here are the air quality categories, according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality:

Code Green: Poses little or no health risk.

Code Yellow: Unusually sensitive people should consider reducing strenuous outdoor activities.

Code Orange: Active children and adults, and people with heart or lung disease (including asthma) should limit or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities.

Code Red: Active children and adults should limit or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities. People unusually sensitive to air pollution, especially those with heart or lung disease (including asthma), should avoid strenuous outdoor activities.

Code Purple: Active children and adults should avoid prolonged strenuous outdoor activities. People unusually sensitive to air pollution, especially those with heart or lung disease (including asthma), and older adults should avoid all outdoor strenuous activities.

High air pollution levels can impair breathing, cause lung damage, coughing and eye irritation and put extra strain on the heart. Air pollution also can aggravate asthma, bronchitis or emphysema.

Those are based on measurements from air quality stations, which are sited near most of the major metro areas in the nation.

The concentration of particle pollution is reported hourly, measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air. High values are obviously harmful, but so is persistence. If the 24-hour average exceeds 35, that’s considered a day that exceeds clean air standards set out by the EPA.

Richmond, for example, trended from a concentration of 34.1 at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, to 38 at 7 a.m. Wednesday, then rose to 44.3 at 2 p.m.

Sunday’s readings were rather low by comparison, mainly between 5 and 8.

Salkovitz said chances were good that Wednesday would turn out to have a code orange average based on the readings through mid-afternoon, but it would take until midnight to know for sure.

The Winchester area had some of the highest concentrations of pollution in the state on Wednesday morning, but saw improvement during the afternoon in the wake of the cold front.

When was the last time it’s been like this here?

The most recent code orange day for particulate matter in the Richmond area was at the Bryan Park monitor on July 5, 2021, which averaged 36 micrograms per cubic meter following holiday fireworks. That reading is still preliminary. Prior to that, the last instance locally was June 13, 2008.

Richmond saw no particulate code orange days during the 2010s, but 45 days between 1999 and 2008 (relative to tighter current standards). Some of those spikes were the result of closer fires in the Great Dismal Swamp, North Carolina, Shenandoah area and even Quebec.

In records going back to 1999, Richmond’s highest particulate pollution day was Aug. 8, 2001 at 52 micrograms per cubic meter.

Roanoke hasn’t had a code orange day related to particulate pollution since 2014. Prior to that, the last one was in 2008. There were 19 code orange days between 2000 and 2008.

The thresholds for ozone are different. Richmond most recently had a code orange for ozone in May, though exceedances have declined dramatically since the 1990s due to cleaner vehicles and stricter emissions rules.


Visible satellite view of Virginia late Wednesday morning, showing smoky air moving through on what would otherwise be a clear day.

Weapon arguments made during hearing for former Rocky Mount officer charged in Jan. 6 riot

Thomas “T.J.” Robertson

The federal hearing for a former Rocky Mount police officer accused of violating the conditions of his bond ended Wednesday morning without a ruling from the judge.

Thomas “T.J.” Robertson and another former Rocky Mount officer, Jacob Fracker, face federal charges for participating in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. On June 30, prosecutors filed a motion to revoke Robertson’s bond after a search of his Ferrum home found firearms and explosive devices. Prosecutors contend Robertson violated the conditions of his release.

Wednesday’s hearing took place in Washington, D.C., with Robertson appearing in person. Robertson’s attorney, Mark Rollins, said the former police officer is being held in Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange County because he personally knows most of the police in Southwest Virginia.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Robertson’s son, Hunter Robertson, testified that he owned the M4 rifle that the FBI found in his father’s home. His father had told him that it was okay to go target shooting on the property while his father was away from the house, he said. FBI agents arrived to search the home while Hunter Robertson was there.

Prosecutor Elizabeth Aloi told District Judge Christopher Cooper that Hunter Robertson’s testimony was inconsistent with statements he made to the FBI when the gun was seized, but that she would not push the issue further for the moment because of other items such as a pipe bomb, a grenade, and silencers that were also found in the home.

Rollins contended that the grenade and the pipe bomb were items Robertson used to give training to other police officers, and that no issues had been raised regarding those items when federal authorities first searched his home and seized guns in January.

Aloi said that what the devices were used for didn’t matter, as by possessing them Robertson was in violation of his bond conditions. “What we have here is a defendant who just thinks he is above the law,” she said.

Aloi additionally contended that Robertson’s purchase of 34 firearms, which were shipped to a gun dealership in Roanoke, also violated the bond conditions. Rollins argued that paperwork requirements guaranteed that Robertson could not legally take physical possession of those guns, thus making violation of the bond order impossible.

At the end of the hearing, Cooper said he would need to weigh Hunter Robertson’s testimony and the evidence presented about the gun purchase paperwork before making a ruling, which will come in the form of a written order.

Fracker and Robertson were fired by the town after federal authorities charged them for participating in the riot. Rollins has stated in previous hearings that all Robertson did was walk peacefully into the Capitol and walk out again, an argument he repeated Wednesday morning while showing video footage to the judge.

Wednesday’s hearing painted contrasting portraits of Robertson.

“He is shipping and transporting an arsenal of weapons and he is advocating for violence,” Aloi said, citing comments made by Robertson in an online gun forum on June 10 in which he wrote, “I have learned very well that if you dip your toe into the Rubicon. . . . cross it. Cross it hard and violent and play for all the marbles.”

“He’s been a police officer for 28 years, with a record of not once being charged or someone making a complaint against him that he used excessive force or was actually violent in some way,” Rollins said. “He’s trained other officers.”

Robertson’s time in jail has been “more extreme than most, because of the isolation that he’s put into, because of his background,” Rollins said. He said that were the judge to allow Robertson out on bond again, the former officer would comply with any additional conditions placed upon him. “You’ve gotten his attention.”

VDOE and VDH release new guidance urging all Virginia elementary schools to require mask wearing

Virginia’s departments of health and education are urging all elementary school students and staff to wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status, until vaccines are available to children under 12.

The guidance released Wednesday falls short of mandating facial coverings for public school students, which has been required under an order from State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver. The directive, which requires students and staff in all K-12 schools to wear masks indoors, will not be extended after it expires July 25, the two departments said in a release.

On Wednesday, the two state departments updated guidance that still prioritizes in-person instruction amid the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, days after the American Academy of Pediatrics released its own guidance urging everyone to wear masks in schools regardless of vaccination status amid the spread of the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 83% of new COVID-19 cases across the country are the Delta variant, up from 50% during the first week of July. At least nine states have created laws prohibiting mask mandates in schools, like Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina and Texas. Last week, California announced a mandate to require masks in schools, then quickly reversed course.

The guidance urges mask wearing in elementary schools, but is more lenient with middle and high schoolers. State officials said that school districts should require masks at a minimum for unvaccinated older students. Schools should consider universal mask wearing if spread in school becomes severe, or if community transmission of a certain COVID-19 variant, such as Delta, that spreads more easily among children begins to increase substantially.

“Virginia has followed the science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do,” Gov. Ralph Northam stated in a news release. “This guidance takes into consideration recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and will provide necessary flexibility for school divisions while ensuring a safe, healthy, and world class learning environment for Virginia’s students.”

A spokesperson for the governor said it was important to “empower” school divisions to make their own decisions on masks. School divisions in the state have seen varied responses to mask mandates, from protests at School Board meetings to an urge from community members to remain masked up.

“This guidance empowers these local leaders to make data-driven decisions in consultation with their local health departments,” said Alena Yarmosky, spokesperson for Northam. “This is consistent with the approach we have taken on K-12 schools throughout this pandemic — recognizing that vaccination eligibility, community transmission, and disease burden vary greatly from school to school and community to community.” She also said that school districts have the option to confirm immunization records, but should consult their school board counsel.

Spokespersons for the public school divisions in Roanoke and Roanoke County, with the largest enrollments in Southwest Virginia, both said Wednesday that the policy recommendations are under review and announcements will be made soon.

The largest school division in the New River Valley, Montgomery County Public Schools, will hold a school board meeting Aug. 3 to vote on a plan that will provide the health and safety guidelines for the upcoming school year, according to Superintendent Mark Miear.

In the meantime, Montgomery County schools will specifically follow federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for a handful of school events set to occur between July 25 and the Aug. 12 start of the school year. The most recent CDC guidance specifically states masks should be worn indoors by all individuals ages 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated.

In Salem, where the new school years begins Aug. 30, “We plan to meet with our Leadership Team, that includes individuals from all six of our schools in Salem, and formulate a realistic plan that is both solid from a safety standpoint and effective from a learning perspective,” Superintendent Alan Seibert said Wednesday.

Roanoke Times staff writers Yann Ranaivo, Jeff Sturgeon and Luke Weir contributed to this report.

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