A thick haze settles over downtown Silver Spring Thursday morning, and the smell of smoke lingers in the air. Credit: Em Espey

Montgomery County residents are being encouraged to limit time spent outdoors and avoid strenuous activity amid code-red air quality conditions Thursday, according to an alert sent by the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. While school isn’t cancelled, other services across the county are changing due to the poor air quality.

Due to the hazardous air conditions caused by smoke from Canadian wildfires, Montgomery County Public Schools canceled or rescheduled all outdoor recess and other activities scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, and school officials say field trips and outdoor graduations may also be impacted.

However, the school district elected not to cancel classes Thursday despite widespread community concern about the health risks posed by the smoke. An online petition urging MCPS to cancel school due to the poor air quality amassed well over 18,000 signatures by the time of this article’s publication.

“If we go to school tomorrow, I will have to run the MILE. With the dirty and smokey air we have now, I will suffocate and damage my lungs,” one person wrote as their reason for signing. Other signees mentioned having asthma and experiencing negative health effects at school due to the air. “My lungs are more important than missing school for one day,” another person wrote.

MCPS spokesperson Chris Cram said the school district’s monitoring identified several factors that indicated a closure was unnecessary.

“The transition to ‘very unhealthy’ did not occur until the 6 a.m. hour and we typically would have made a decision prior to that,” he wrote to MoCo360. “This fact, as well as our previously communicated guidance concerning restricting or canceling activities outdoors and that all our schools and buses are air-conditioned allow for safe operations of schools as of this hour. We also checked in with all other local jurisdictions; none had canceled school.


He added that MCPS would continue to monitor conditions and would communicate any updates to the community “as they become necessary.”

The air quality index for the suburban D.C. region hit code-red unhealthy levels Wednesday, and by Thursday the levels reached code purple, signifying “very unhealthy air conditions for the entire public, not just those with respiratory illness,” according to D.C. officials. The index, which accounts for pollution in the air, currently measures nearly 200 in Montgomery County on a scale of 0-500; values below 100 are generally considered healthy for humans.

Other county activities are being changed or suspended due to the poor air conditions. The county’s Department of Transportation announced Thursday morning that it would be suspending all strenuous outside activities, except for emergency situations. All RideOn bus services will be free on Thursday, according to the department.


The county’s Department of Recreation cancelled all its outdoor recreation activities Thursday.

In a news release, officials advised homeless people to seek out recreation centers, senior centers and libraries during business hours and to call 240-907-2688. They also encouraged residents to check on isolated friends, relatives and neighbors.

Research shows air pollutants like smoke particles can exacerbate preexisting health conditions, reduce lung function and cause further health complications. According to health experts, symptoms associated with wildfire smoke particulates can include:

  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Itchy or runny eyes or nose
  • Burning eyes
  • Itchy or dry throat, and
  • Increased asthma symptoms for those with asthma

Local officials recommend avoiding strenuous activity and wearing an N-95 face mask outside to provide additional protection from current hazardous air conditions.