Smoke shrouds Lee University campus
Smoke from surrounding wildfires has been billowing onto the Lee University campus for the past few weeks during one of the worst droughts the East Tennessee region has seen in years.
Many people have woken up to hazy mornings that have obscured campus buildings and lower air quality that has caused breathing complications for students like Senior English Education major Dani McNiel, who has mild asthma.
“I was walking to class on Tuesday, and when I got to class I was really struggling to breathe,” McNiel said. “Walking home from that class, I was feeling really nauseous, and by the time I got home I had to use my inhaler because I was really really out of breath.”
While she did not have to seek outside medical attention, McNiel said that was the first time she had to use her inhaler in five years. She often walks to class but has been driving more to avoid breathing the smoke outside.
“I’ve driven to class way more in the last week and a half than I have all semester,” McNiel said. “[The smoke] is just kind of a problem for anybody who’s got issues already or that their breathing is really important so it really sucks for everybody.”
The morning of Thursday, Nov. 17 was particularly hazy on campus, with smoke that lingered for hours, according to Cleveland Fire Marshal Ben Atchley.
“I don’t know that there’s been many quite like [it],” Atchley said. “It seemed like it lasted for a couple hours, kinda rolled through and then it was gone.”
Some campus health services staff members have seen a fair share of patients with allergies and problems related to the smoky air.
Health Services Nurse Jan Wright has seen nearly 10 students in the last two weeks and has provided masks for some of them to wear.
“The ones I’ve seen in the last several days have all been using their inhalers more than they have to,” Wright said. “We’ve not had to send anybody to the ER that we’ve seen here.”
Most students that have come to the clinic report coughing as well as burning in the nose and chest areas, according to Nurse Ann Minter, who saw five or six students come in between Tuesday, Nov. 15 and Wednesday, Nov. 16.
“Some people just wheeze and get tight, some people have true asthma attacks where everything just clamps down and they can’t move air – that’s an emergency,” Minter said. “If they’re truly having trouble, especially asthmatics, they need to come in and we may need to adjust their medication.”
Minter says that students with asthma should come by the campus health clinic or see their medical provider if they have to use their inhalers more than two or three times a day for more than two days in a row.
She also encourages students to stay indoors and stay informed about local air quality alerts.
“Only go [outdoors] between classes,” Minter said. “Just pay attention to the news…they’re reporting on air quality.”
Atchley says the smoke in Cleveland is a combination from fires in surrounding areas such as North Georgia, Sequatchie County, Polk County, Hamilton County, southern Knoxville and North Carolina.
“We’re getting a lot of other folks’ smoke,” Atchley said. “Really any kind of wind that we get, for the most part there’s smoke in front of that wind and so we’re just being inundated from two or three different directions.”
Atchley said that the Cleveland Fire Department has not seen any serious fires recently, but has responded to some small grass fires. He added that the lack of rain is partially responsible for the spreading of fires and lower air quality.
“I’ve been here most of my life and I’ve never seen it dry like this. It’s kinda unprecedented,” Atchley said. “I think rain kinda washes the air and certainly if the rainfall is widespread, of course, it would extinguish some of those lingering areas that are smoking.”
He urges those on campus and surrounding community members to be mindful of the state-wide burn ban and to handle fire with care.
“Any open burning has been banned and outlawed now so just anytime you’re handling lighting or doing anything with fire just exercise a great deal of caution,” Atchley said.