Metro area recovers from widespread smoke; distant fire and weather are to blame

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NEW YORK (PIX11) — Fires that bring first responders to the scene typically affect more than one person, but a fire affecting millions is rare. That rarity happened overnight Sunday and well into Monday in the metro area, and the reason had more to do with weather than it had to do with smoke and flames.

“It was an awful smell,” said Eric Baretto, who works near South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. “We were wondering where it was coming from.”

“It smelled like wood smoke,” a mother in Brooklyn Heights told PIX11 while pushing her daughter in a stroller.  “But [it] may be a bit more acrid, maybe chemical, I don’t know.”

She was among the estimated 3 million people in New York and New Jersey who smelled and saw the thick gray haze that even the city’s tallest skyscrapers could barely peek out from.

Smell of smoke, haze from NJ brushfire descend on NYC skyline

The smoke and haze was caused by a brush fire in South Central New Jersey.

The haze was a smoky smog that hung in the air from the ground to about 50 storeys high, covering much of the city, most coastal towns in North Jersey and up the Hudson as far as 30 miles north of Manhattan.

“Winds basically come down from the upper levels of the atmosphere,” said Gary Conte, meteorologist at the National Weather Service, “and what they do is they trap a lot of pollutants and everything near the surface.”

In other words, typically, when there’s a fire, its smoke rises up and up into the atmosphere.  Weatherwise, however, Sunday night and Monday morning were not typical.

Air11 helicopter video from around 7:00 A.M. Monday clearly demonstrated the situation.  From the aircraft’s perch about 4000 feet high, the sky above the city’s skyline appeared to be relatively clear.  From that same vantage point, the area from the tops of skyscrapers to the ground below, the thick, soupy smog was everywhere.

The clearer conditions higher above were the result of warmer air in higher altitudes.  The lower the altitude on Sunday night and Monday morning, the lower the temperature.  Usually, the situation is the other way around.

“That is called an inversion,” said Conte, the official warning meteorologist for the New York City metro area.  “Because of that warming, that means that the most dense air is near the surface, which traps the cloud of smoke closer to the surface.”

In this specific case, the smoke came from a 1600 acre fire in Wharton State Forest, in South Central New Jersey.  It’s 90 miles southwest of New York City, but meteorological conditions blew the smoke over the country’s largest metropolis, and would not let it escape.

“That’s crazy. That’s weird,” said Raymond Hayes, a delivery man in Manhattan.

The fact is, though, that’s how weather works.  The situation prompted the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to issue air quality advisories for New York City, Westchester and Rockland Counties in New York and in Central and Northern New Jersey.

The New York advisory was in effect until 11:00 P.M.  New Jersey’s was in place until at least 6 P.M.

However, as Conte pointed out to PIX11 News, rain and a cold front Monday evening have moved most of the smoke out of the area.