When Mike Freelove stepped outside 30 minutes after filling his German shorthaired dog’s water bowl, he noticed that the top of the water was black with soot.
It had been nearly a week after fires swept through the county, circling around the Freelove’s home in Ashland, but ash and smoke still hung heavy in the air.
The next morning, Rita Freelove, Mike’s wife, woke up at 3:30, coughing with a headache. She sat coughing and wheezing in a chair in the living room until a gloomy dawn.
Ash might be getting in dog water bowls, but it’s also getting in people’s lungs.
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Michael Mages, CEO of Ashland Health Center, said the center is urging people working outdoors to wear masks that keep the dust particles out.
“Since there’s not much foliage anymore in the grass — or there’s not grass — this extra wind we continue to have is just keeping it up in the air,” Mages said. “It’ll be around until we get a good rain.”
People working on fences are encouraged to make sure their tetanus shots are up to date and wear good boots, keeping their eyes out for rattlesnakes on the move as temperatures rise.
With this wind in the last few days, it’s keeping the skies kind of dusky and gray,” Mages said. “We’re encouraging people to wear eye protection.”
Mages said people with cardiac and respiratory issues should have regular checkups and be careful with exertion.
Mike Freelove has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic lung disease that makes it hard to breathe under normal circumstances. He uses a portable oxygen machine, inhalers and takes medication for the disease. With the poor air quality after the fires, it has become even more difficult.
“The smoke and the ash really make it hard for me to breathe,” he said. “That’s kind of scary.”
Rita Freelove said she’s noticed many people in the area who sound hoarse from breathing in the ash, which also makes the air reek. Their cats and dogs also track the grime in. Even though the town wasn’t burned, strong Kansas winds blow soot into Ashland.
The couple plans to head for clean air as soon as possible. They imagine the health effects must be even worse for people who are cleaning up ranches and burned homes after the fires, getting covered in soot and breathing in larger quantities.
Even the walls of a house can’t always keep away the smell. Outside, the smell of burned prairie hangs constantly in the air, blowing into ears and mouths.
“I don’t know how long we can expect that,” Rita said. “I have no idea. I just want it to go away.”