An 8,000-acre grass fire near Bolivar Peninsula spread smoke Wednesday throughout the county, at times creating strong odor and low visibility.
The fire was discovered about 7 a.m. Tuesday at the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge in Jefferson County, east of the peninsula, refuge manager Douglas Head said.
The smoke reached Galveston early Wednesday morning and spread inland throughout the day, according to the National Weather Service.
Closer to the wildlife refuge, the smoke was thick and irritating, Crystal Beach resident Janie Wilson said.
“Where I’m living in Crystal Beach, it’s horrible,” Wilson said. “It’s burning eyes, scratchy throat kind of stuff. I’ve never seen it this bad.”
Weather officials originally reported the fire as being a controlled, or scheduled burn, but that wasn’t the case, Head said.
The cause of the fire was unknown Wednesday, said Mike Kirkpatrick, a deputy with the Jefferson County Emergency Management Office.
The wildlife refuge is a marshy area not easily accessible by vehicles, so firefighters can’t easily extinguish the fire, Kirkpatrick said.
“By the time they got to it, it was pretty well involved,” Kirkpatrick said. “They’re going to let it burn itself out.”
The smoke was especially bad through the county because of a weather phenomenon called temperature inversion, National Weather Service meteorologist Katie Magee said.
In an inversion, the air temperature actually increases the farther it it is from the earth, instead of getting colder, like it normally does during the day, Magee said. Having a warmer layer of air above a colder layer makes it difficult for smoke to dissipate, she said.
“That kind of traps the smoke farther down,” Magee said.
Many people woke up in the morning to a burning smell and worried a fire was in their area.
“I knew something was burning, I just didn’t know where it was,” Galveston resident Tracy Singleton said. “It was kind of hazy.”
Wilson said she worried about inhaling too much smoke.
“I didn’t want to go outside,” Wilson said. “If I had children, I certainly wouldn’t want to take them out.”
The biggest health concerns from smoke would be for people with existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said Tiffaney Martinez, a respiratory therapist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can get “flare-ups” from smoke, in which symptoms suddenly get exacerbated, Martinez said.
“They’re coughing more, they’re wheezing more, it might end up with them having to be hospitalized,” Martinez said.
For people with asthma, the smoke could trigger an asthma attack, she said.
People without respiratory problems could have increased “allergy” problems, such as itchy eyes, stuffy noses, or scratchy throats, Martinez said.
But those people shouldn’t worry about the smoke affecting them in the long-run, Martinez said.
“There is always a potential health risk associated with inhaling anything,” Martinez said. “But you have to weigh in the length of exposure and what is being inhaled.”
The smoke might be irritating, but it’s not harmful in itself to most people, she said.
“In my opinion, this grass burn isn’t much different from a campfire,” Martinez said. “It can cause eye irritation and mild respiratory symptoms for healthy individuals. But the major concern is for people with chronic lung disease.”
Conditions were expected to improve today, but meteorologist Josh Lichter cautioned that people on the mainland might still smell some smoke and experience lower visibility.