Why Are Canada’s Wildfires Choking the U.S. This Time?

This week, large-scale wildfires in Canada have caused extensive smoke and haze to cover the eastern United States. This has resulted in air quality warnings across the eastern seaboard, including New York City, where the skyline was barely visible on Wednesday afternoon. In New Jersey, the orange skies on Tuesday made little league baseball games appear as if they were taking place on the planet Tatooine. Due to the poor air quality in the city, which smelled like campfires, schools in Washington, D.C. have scheduled indoor recess. 

The source of the gathering gloom is the smoke from a series of wildfires in Canada. It’s not new to have fires in Canada but the current blazes are far beyond anything seen in recent decades, causing excessive smoke that has borne down on Canadian and U.S. cities. There have been more fires in Canada in May and the first few days of June than there usually are across the whole summer. 

The situation is unprecedented but also part of a growing trend of longer, hotter wildfire seasons in both Canada and the United States. The crisis adding fuel to the fire, quite literally, is climate change. 

“In Canada, our burn has doubled since the 1970s, and my colleagues and I attribute this largely, but not solely, to human-caused climate change,” says Mike Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, who has been researching wildfire and climate change for 30 years.

Canada is experiencing what could become their worst wildfire season on record, due to ongoing drought and warm temperatures. Wildfires are at more than 10 times their normal average so far this year, and in May alone Canada saw more than 6.6 million acres burn — a total almost the size of Massachusetts. 

Warm and dry conditions will continue to increase wildfire risk in most of Canada in June and July, according to a wildfire outlook from Canadian officials this week.

“It is, in a word, sobering,” Canada’s minister of natural resources, Jonathan Wilkinson, told reporters at a press briefing on June 5. “This year’s already devastating season could well get worse.”

Dry weather, high temperatures, and reduced snowpack are inflaming and intensifying wildfire seasons.

“Wildfires certainly took place before we started to clearly see the acceleration of the effects of climate change,” Wilkinson said at the press briefing, speaking in French through an interpreter. “However, we are now experiencing a new reality, one where we need to pay attention to what science is telling us.”

How are the Canadian wildfires affecting air quality? 

The immense dark plumes of smoke from the Canadian wildfires have dissipated into hazy conditions and air quality warnings across the eastern and midwestern United States. The smoke naturally moves on air currents, and the heat of wildfires can push smoke higher into the atmosphere, helping it to travel longer distances.

The pollution from these particles is at historic levels in some cities along the East Coast. New York City now has the distinction of some of the worst air quality in the world — ranking third at midday Wednesday, just behind Delhi and Dahka — according to IQAir, a Swiss air monitoring company. 

Wildfire smoke contains fine particles of smoke and soot. Scientists say the particulates from wildfires can be more toxic than from some other sources since a wildfire burns everything in its path — not just trees and shrubs but also parts of homes, trash, and plastics.

The smoky air affects the heart and lungs and can leave people gasping for breath, especially the very young and very old. Researchers have connected poor air quality from wildfires to increased hospitalizations and premature births. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign estimated in 2017 that wildfire smoke has caused 500 more deaths per year in the United States.

There are three main ingredients that create a wildfire: fuel (grasses, plants, leaves, trees, and anything that burns), ignitions (from humans or lightning), and dry conditions. Climate change is bringing more hot, dry weather that creates the perfect tinderbox for disaster.  On a hot, windy day, a spark or lightning can quickly ignite wildfire fuel. 

“We are seeing a lot more fires in the western United States and Canada over the last few decades, with a notable increase just in the last few years,” says Matthew Wibbenmeyer, who studies climate and wildfire management as a fellow at Resources for the Future. 

It is not a linear trend, since some years are better than others. But the area burned by wildfires has doubled in Canada since the 1970s and quadrupled in the western United States in that same time. Longer, dryer summers have erased the concept of a “fire season” and turned it into a “fire year” in some parts of the arid West. 

Meanwhile, the fires themselves are erasing some of our gains in efforts to fight climate change, as carbon dioxide from the fires spews into the atmosphere. In one study, researchers determined emissions from the 2020 wildfires in California could have wiped out the gains the state had made in greenhouse gas reductions since 2003. 

“It can be a pretty significant amount of carbon released by these fires and of course that creates a sort of vicious cycle,” says Wibbenmeyer.

So what do we do when the world is literally on fire? Flannigan suggests government agencies should have better-advanced planning. Instead of just reacting to fires, they should plan ahead for them. That could mean bringing in additional firefighting resources ahead of time instead of after a fire starts, burying power lines so they don’t cause sparks, or keeping visitors out of forests during high-risk fire days.

Flannigan stresses that urgent action is needed to address climate change — an urgency that has only grown since he first started speaking on the perils of climate and wildfire 25 years ago.“I am really concerned because it has just gone crazy,” he says, “and I expect crazier in the future.”

Schools across the U.S. East Coast canceled outdoor activities, airline traffic slowed and millions of Americans were urged to stay indoors on Wednesday as smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south, blanketing cities in thick, yellow haze.

The U.S. National Weather Service issued air quality alerts for virtually the entire Atlantic seaboard. Health officials from Vermont to South Carolina and as far west as Ohio and Kansas warned residents that spending time outdoors could cause respiratory problems due to high levels of fine particulates in the atmosphere.

"It's critical that Americans experiencing dangerous air pollution, especially those with health conditions, listen to local authorities to protect themselves and their families," President Joe Biden said on Twitter.

U.S. private forecasting service AccuWeather said thick haze and soot extending from high elevations to the ground level marked the worst outbreak of wildfire smoke to blanket the Northeastern U.S. in more than 20 years.

New York's famous skyline, usually visible for miles, appeared to vanish in an otherworldly veil of smoke, which some residents said made them feel unwell.

"It makes breathing difficult," Mohammed Abass said as he walked down Broadway in Manhattan. "I've been scheduled for a road test for driving, for my driving license today, and it was canceled."

The smoky air was especially tough on people toiling outdoors, such as Chris Ricciardi, owner of Neighbor's Envy Landscaping in Roxbury, New Jersey. He said he and his crew were curtailing work hours and wearing masks they used for heavy pollen.

"We don't have the luxury to stop working," he said. "We want to keep our exposure to the smoke to a minimum, but what can you really do about it?"

Angel Emmanuel Ramirez, 29, a fashion stylist at a Givenchy outlet in Manhattan, said he and fellow workers began feeling ill and closed up shop early when they realized the smell of smoke was permeating the store.

"It's so intense, you would think the wildfire was happening right across the river, not up in Canada," Ramirez said.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul called the situation an "emergency crisis," saying the air pollution index for parts of her state was eight times above normal.

Reduced visibility from the haze forced the Federal Aviation Administration to slow air traffic into the New York City area and Philadelphia from elsewhere on the East Coast and upper Midwest, with flight delays averaging about a half hour.

Schools up and down the East Coast called off outdoor activities, including sports, field trips, and recesses.

A Broadway matinee of "Prima Facie" was halted after 10 minutes when actress Jodie Comer had difficulty breathing due to poor air quality. The show was restarted with understudy Dani Arlington going on for Comer in the role of Tessa, a production spokesperson said in a statement.

Even Major League Baseball was impacted, as the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies both postponed home games scheduled for Wednesday. A National Women's Soccer League match in Harrison, New Jersey, was also rescheduled, as was a WNBA women's basketball game in Brooklyn.

In some areas, the air quality index (AQI), which measures major pollutants including particulate matter produced by fires, was well above 400, according to Airnow, which sets 100 as "unhealthy" and 300 as "hazardous."

At noon (1600 GMT), Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was recording the nation's worst air quality index, with an AQI reading of 410. Among major cities, New York had the highest AQI in the world on Wednesday afternoon at 342, about double the index for chronically polluted cities such as Dubai (168) and Delhi (164), according to IQAir.

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Reuters Graphics Reuters Graphics


The smoke billowed over the U.S. border from Canada, where hundreds of forest fires have scorched 9.4 million acres (3.8 million hectares) and forced 120,000 people from their homes in an unusually early and intense start to the wildfire season.

The skies above New York and many other North American cities grew progressively hazier through Wednesday, with an eerie yellowish tinge filtering through the smoky canopy. The air smelled like burning wood.

Wildfire smoke has been linked with higher rates of heart attacks and strokes, increases in emergency room visits for asthma and other respiratory conditions, eye irritation, itchy skin, and rashes, among other problems.

A Home Depot store in Manhattan sold out of air purifiers and masks. New York Road Runners canceled events intended to mark Global Running Day.

"This is not the day to train for a marathon or to do an outside event with your children," New York Mayor Eric Adams advised. "If you are older or have heart or breathing problems or an older adult, you should remain inside."

Pedestrians donned face masks in numbers that brought to mind the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tyrone Sylvester, 66, playing chess in Manhattan's Union Square as he has on most days for 30 years, but wearing a mask, said he had never seen the city's air quality so bad.

"When the sun looks like that," he said, pointing out the bronze-like orb visible through the smoky sky, "we know something's wrong. This is what global warming looks like."

Poor air quality is likely to persist into the weekend, with a developing storm system expected to shift the smoke westward across the Great Lakes and deeper south through the Ohio Valley and into the mid-Atlantic region, AccuWeather said.

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