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.

Valerie Wells: 409-683-5246; valerie.wells@galvnews.com

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(6) comments

Tim Thompson

And of course they pick a day where there's no breeze (probably to reduce chance fires will get out of control) so the smoke is everywhere, sitting close to the ground instead of being dispersed by winds. I have heard these are actually sugar cane fields, is that right? And I wonder why they simply can't cut the excess plant material down and recycle it rather than burn it, creating a health hazard for people. I know it's only a day or so but still.

Kelly Naschke

I actually kind of enjoy the smokey smell and have noticed the smoke....thanks for the clarification of its origin.

Carlos Ponce

The smoke was worse over Hitchcock than Texas City and Santa Fe. Too much exposure makes me ill. This happens at the Good Ole Days barbecue cook off. It also happened at the Edna Invitational Band Marching Contest where the Hitchcock High School Band made straight ones and were entered into the finals where we competed against class 4A and 5A bands. We did not get home until 3AM Sunday Morning. This weekends UIL Marching Contest is in El Campo, Texas. Hitchcock performs at 1:15 pm Saturday afternoon.

Mark Aaron

Or try walking on The Strand when the motorcycle rally is going on. I would need an oxygen tank.

Cary Semar

We had the windows open the last three days enjoying the cooler weather, but this afternoon, our smoke alarm kept going off. Now I know why.

Carlos Ponce

I wonder if those who monitor air quality will take the origin of the smoke into account. Air quality in Galveston County will be shown as low according to recording instruments. Not as a result of petro-chemical plants nor auto emissions nor anything local. The burning didn't even occur in this county.

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