Canadian wildfires engulf US East coast in smokeas outdoor activities were canceled in schools across the U.S. East Coast, airline traffic experienced a slowdown, and millions of Americans were advised to remain indoors on Wednesday. This was in response to smoke from Canadian wildfires moving southward and enveloping cities in a dense, yellow haze.
The U.S. National Weather Service issued air quality alerts for almost the entire Atlantic seaboard. Health officials from Vermont to South Carolina, and even as far west as Ohio and Kansas, cautioned residents about the potential respiratory issues that could arise from spending time outdoors. These concerns were attributed to elevated levels of fine particulate matter present in the atmosphere.
According to President Joe Biden:
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
According to AccuWeather, a private forecasting service in the U.S., the Northeastern region experienced the most severe episode of wildfire smoke in over two decades. The thick haze and soot extended from high altitudes to ground level, creating a surreal atmosphere.
The iconic skyline of New York, typically visible over long distances, seemed to disappear behind an eerie shroud of smoke. Numerous residents reported feeling unwell as a result of the unusual conditions.
"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 posed significant challenges for individuals working outdoors, including Chris Ricciardi, the owner of Neighbor's Envy Landscaping in Roxbury, New Jersey. In response to the conditions, he and his team had to reduce their work hours and wear masks typically reserved for protection against 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, a 29-year-old fashion stylist at a Givenchy outlet in Manhattan, shared that he and his colleagues started experiencing discomfort and health issues. They made the decision to close the store early upon realizing that the smell of smoke had permeated the entire establishment.
"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 characterized the situation as an "emergency crisis," expressing concern over the air pollution index in certain parts of the state being eight times higher than normal.
The dense haze caused reduced visibility, leading the Federal Aviation Administration to implement slower air traffic into the New York City area and Philadelphia from other regions along the East Coast and upper Midwest. As a result, flight delays averaged around half an hour. Schools throughout the East Coast made the decision to cancel outdoor activities, including sports, field trips, and recess periods, in response to the prevailing conditions.
During a Broadway matinee performance of "Prima Facie," actress Jodie Comer encountered breathing difficulties caused by poor air quality. As a result, the show had to be temporarily halted after just ten minutes. In a statement, a spokesperson for the production announced that the performance resumed with understudy Dani Arlington stepping in for Comer in the role of Tessa.
The impact of the poor air quality extended to Major League Baseball, leading to the postponement of home games for both the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies that were scheduled for Wednesday. Additionally, a National Women's Soccer League match in Harrison, New Jersey, and a WNBA women's basketball game in Brooklyn were rescheduled due to the conditions.
Airnow, an organization that monitors air quality, reported that in certain areas, the air quality index (AQI) exceeded 400. The AQI measures various pollutants, including particulate matter from wildfires, with 100 considered "unhealthy" and 300 labeled as "hazardous."
At noon (1600 GMT), Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had the highest AQI in the nation, recording a reading of 410. Among major cities, New York had the highest AQI in the world on Wednesday afternoon, reaching 342. This number was nearly double the AQI of chronically polluted cities like Dubai (168) and Delhi (164), as reported by IQAir.
Thick smoke seen in New York City with the statue of liberty in sight
The smoke that engulfed several North American cities originated from Canada, where numerous forest fires have ravaged approximately 9.4 million acres (3.8 million hectares) of land. This unusually early and intense start to the wildfire season has forced around 120,000 individuals to evacuate their homes.
Throughout Wednesday, the skies over New York and various other cities in North America grew progressively hazier, with a peculiar yellowish hue permeating through the smoky atmosphere. The air carried the distinct scent of burning wood.
Exposure to wildfire smoke has been associated with higher rates of heart attacks and strokes, and an increase in emergency room visits for respiratory conditions such as asthma, eye irritation, itchy skin, rashes, and other related health problems.
The demand for air purifiers and masks surged to the extent that a Home Depot store in Manhattan quickly sold out of these items. This indicates a heightened concern among residents about the poor air quality caused by the wildfire smoke.
"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 are an older adult, you should remain inside."
Pedestrians were observed wearing face masks in large numbers, evoking memories of the most challenging days of the coronavirus pandemic. Tyrone Sylvester, a 66-year-old who regularly plays chess in Manhattan's Union Square, a tradition he has upheld for three decades, remarked on the unprecedented air quality conditions in the city. While engaging in his usual activity, Sylvester wore a mask, emphasizing that he had never witnessed such poor air quality in New York City before.
"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."
According to AccuWeather, the poor air quality is anticipated to persist throughout the weekend as a developing storm system is projected to push the smoke westward across the Great Lakes and further southward through the Ohio Valley, eventually reaching the mid-Atlantic region. This suggests that the impact of the Canadian wildfires on air quality will extend to a wider geographic area in the coming days.