Smoky skies have prompted an air quality alert for all of Minnesota. What does it mean?

Thick haze is visible along a highway
Thick haze is visible along U.S. Highway 10 near Lake Park, Minn., on Thursday morning. Smoke from Canadian wildfires has caused poor air quality in the region.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

An air quality alert is in effect for all of Minnesota through 6 a.m. Friday, as smoke from Canadian wildfires continues to blanket the state.

Conditions were particularly bad in western Minnesota on Thursday morning, with hazy, smoky skies reducing visibility in some areas. The ground-level smoke was forecast to move east across the state through the day.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said particulate levels across most of the state — including the Twin Cities — will be in the red, or unhealthy category. It’s advising all people — not just those with health conditions — to avoid spending prolonged time outdoors while the alert is in effect.

The smoke is forecast to rapidly clear out of Minnesota overnight into Friday morning.

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Air quality alert until 6 a.m. Friday
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

What does the air quality alert mean?

For this latest air quality alert, most of the state — including the Twin Cities, Mankato, St. Cloud, Worthington, Willmar, Brainerd, Bemidji and Moorhead — is in the “red,” or unhealthy, category. That’s the third-most-serious of six air quality index categories.

It means the air quality is considered unhealthy for everyone, not just people with health conditions.

“Anyone may begin to experience symptoms such as irritated eyes, nose and throat, coughing, chest tightness, or shortness of breath,” the MPCA reported. “Sensitive or more exposed individuals may experience more serious health effects.”

Southeast and northeast Minnesota are forecast to be in the less-serious “orange” category — which means the air is unhealthy for people in sensitive groups including those with asthma or other breathing conditions; people with heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes; people who are pregnant; and children or older adults.

The sun rises through hazy skies
The sun rises through hazy skies in the Twin Cities on Wednesday.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

What should I do during an air quality alert?

For most of the state in the red category, the MPCA advises everyone to avoid spending prolonged time outdoors until the alert has ended — and especially to avoid intense physical activities outside if possible. If you do spend time outside, take more breaks.

For areas of the state in the orange category, officials say people in sensitive groups should reduce time spent outside until the smoke and haze has cleared.