For the second day in a row, New York City had some of the worst air quality of any major city on the planet. But that was hardly the only place to experience the eerie, eerie, throat-burning smoke that scientists say may become a more common occurrence in a warming world.
In Philadelphia, as elsewhere, schools have canceled field trips, moved recess indoors, and postponed track and field games. In Washington, where monuments along the National Mall were shrouded in afternoon darkness, commuters wore masks that had nothing to do with a pandemic for the first time in years.
It looks like Mars outside, said Dennis Scannell, the co-owner of a typically bustling but now quiet baseball and softball training facility in Syracuse. The city’s Air Quality Index, a measure of outdoor pollution, registered 402 late Wednesday morning. Healthy is considered under 50.
In Binghamton, NY, the office of the National Weather Service tweeted on the darkening sky just before 10:00 The sun is no longer visible, everything is orange, the parking lot lights have come on, it said, next to a photo of the otherworldly scene.
Early Wednesday, Canadian officials reported more than 400 active fires, with about 240 listed as out of control. The hardest-hit province is Quebec, where at least 154 fires have been recorded.
At the current rate, government officials said this week, Canada is on track to experience the worst wildfire season in its history. Already this year, some 2,300 fires have burned about 9.4 million acres, according to government figures. In the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia, unusually intense fires burned more land this year than in the past 10 years combined.
Hot, dry conditions will increase the risk of bushfires in most of Canada this month, according to the Canadian government, which also expects higher-than-normal fire activity to continue throughout the bushfire season. Drier weather and high temperatures fueled by a warmer atmosphere are exacerbating the damage, Canadian officials say.
Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires and creating longer fire seasons in Canada, Michael Norton, a Canadian Forest Service official, told reporters earlier this week. Historical averages increasingly fail to reflect what we might see in the future, which is why the word unprecedented is being used more and more.
Unprecedented also seemed like a fair way to describe the sheer scale and intensity of the smoke that cloaked much of the East Coast Wednesday.
Deteriorating air quality prompted fresh warnings from officials throughout the day, as part of Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere have been upgraded to a red or unhealthy air quality alert. In Boston, the National Weather Service She said smoke could linger in southern New England through Thursday.
Government data on Wednesday afternoon showed a surprising swath of unhealthy air stretching from parts of upstate New York as far east as Connecticut, and south beyond Richmond to North Carolina. Parts of New York and Pennsylvania had eclipsed thresholds for very unhealthy or even dangerous air quality.
Exposure to smoke from wildfires can irritate the eyes, throat and sinuses, causing coughing and making it difficult to breathe normally. An insidious type of pollution made up of fine particles, common in smoke and soot and known as PM2.5, can also pose more serious problems for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, pregnant women and children. It can exacerbate conditions such as asthma and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes in some populations.
Many Americans traditionally think of wildfires as a problem largely confined to the West, where massive and deadly wildfires have destroyed parts of California, Oregon, Washington and other states in recent years.
But smoke from large fires can travel across the country, covering large population centers. A 2021 study documented how smoke from both western wildfires and local sources may be more harmful to residents of the eastern United States than many realize.
Scientists also detailed how a warming world can fuel increasingly intense fires. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of some of the leading researchers on the planet, has said that unless humans dramatically reduce the burning of fossil fuels, it is likely that fire seasons will lengthen and more areas they will burn.
Marshall Burke, an associate professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University, said the fires are directly related to a major heat event that has occurred across Canada in recent weeks, noting the clear climate links.
While historically these events have been very rare, I think all the evidence suggests they will become less rare in the future as the climate warms, he said. So this is something we have to learn to prepare for.
At the White House on Wednesday, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that President Biden was receiving regular updates on the fires and that the United States has deployed more than 600 firefighters and personnel, as well as equipment such as water bombers, to help Canada fight the hells.
On the floor of the Senate, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) took time out to complain about wildfires of unnatural strength that continue to burn in Canada, sending toxic air and smoke across the border and over American cities .
Like many other public officials, he urged those in the path of the smoke to take individual precautions. But he also called the situation a reminder of the dangers posed by a hotter planet.
We cannot ignore that climate change continues to make these disasters worse. Warmer temperatures and severe droughts mean forests burn faster, hotter and bigger, Schumer said. This smoke and fog over New York and the rest of the Northeast is nature’s warning that we have a lot of work to do to reverse the destruction of climate change.
But Wednesday, in towns large and small along the East Coast, there was little to do but wait, hope that the distant fires would somehow die down and that the noxious cloud of the past few days would soon lift.
Six-year-old Mikhail Williams missed recess after it was canceled by his school in the district. Mikhail and his father, Duane Williams, played tag in a downtown park, where they noticed the effect of the smoke.
It’s like when you swallow sand, Elder Williams said. I feel the phlegm building up in the back of my throat.
My eyes burn, said Mikhail.
Do you know where the fire is? asked his grandmother, Donna Williams, 66.
Antarctica? the boy answered. Can you say Canada? his father asked.
New Yorkers, some of whom have whipped out their pandemic-era face coverings, meandered through the smoke that had descended to street level. The yellowish tint darkened the horizon in every direction. Some complained that their eyes were sore; others said they developed a cough. Adams (D) said the city’s air quality index hit 484 Wednesday as of 5 p.m.
Mark Strauss, 58, said the last time he remembers this type of air quality problem uptown was after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when we received smoke from the downtown site, he said . You could see smoke in the sky. It was similar to that.
In Oswego County, north of Syracuse, where air pollution skyrocketed to dangerous levels Wednesday, Joseph Provost was among those buttoned up in his home, along with his wife and children. He’s got asthma, and ever since the smoke from the fires came in, he’s been feeling it: scratchy throat, chest congestion, some difficulty breathing.
He made sure all windows remained closed. His inhaler was close at hand.
I probably won’t go out unless it’s absolutely necessary, she said. It’s that bad.
Outside of Rochester, where he spent 30 years as a meteorologist, Richard McCollough got up Wednesday to start his morning shift broadcasting the forecast on WDKX, a local radio station.
From his window, he saw a scene bathed in an orange glow. Visibility had dropped to less than a mile. McCollough has worked in Los Angeles and Cincinnati in the past and knows exactly how the right combination of fire and wind can produce a smoky haze that blankets a city.
He never expected to see him outside his farm in upstate New York. On Wednesday he did something for the first time ever at his current job: provide an air quality alert.
That’s never happened before, said McCollough, 62. I’ve never had to do it on the air.
Amudalat Ajasa, Matthew Cappucci, Amanda Coletta, Dan Diamond, Emmanuel Felton, Ian Livingston, Justine McDaniel, Mary Claire Molloy, Joshua Partlow, and Joanna Slater contributed to this report.
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