'I can taste the air': Canadian wildfire smoke causes health warnings, pauses flights in U.S.
Over 400 wildfires in Canada have affected air quality in several states
By Jennifer Peltz and Rob Giles
NEW YORK — Smoke from Canadian wildfires poured into the U.S. East Coast and Midwest on Wednesday, covering the capitals of both nations in an unhealthy haze, holding up flights at major airports and prompting people to fish out pandemic-era face masks.
While Canadian officials asked other countries for additional help fighting more than 400 blazes nationwide that already have displaced 20,000 people, air quality with what the U.S. rates as hazardous levels of pollution extended into central New York and northeastern Pennsylvania. Massive tongues of unhealthy air extended as far as North Carolina and Indiana, affecting millions of people.
“I can taste the air,” Dr. Ken Strumpf said in a Facebook post from Syracuse, New York, which was enveloped in an amber pall. The smoke, he later said by phone, even made him a bit dizzy.
In Baltimore, where officials urged residents to stay indoors, Debbie Funk sported a blue surgical mask as she and husband, Jack Hughes, took their daily walk around Fort McHenry, a national monument overlooking the Patapsco River. The air hung thick over the water, obscuring the horizon as distant ships pushed slowly through the haze.
“I walked outside this morning, and it was like a waft of smoke,” said Funk, who said the couple planned to stay inside later Wednesday.
Canadian officials say this is shaping up to be the nation's worst wildfire season ever. It started early on drier-than-usual ground and accelerated very quickly, exhausting firefighting resources across the country, fire and environmental officials said.
Smoke from the blazes in various parts of the country has been lapping into the U.S. since last month but intensified with a recent spate of fires in Quebec, where about 100 were considered out of control Wednesday.
“The smoke was insane" on Tuesday, said Zachary Kamel, 36, of Montreal. “I had to close my window because the fresh air just smelled like campfire.”
Quebec Premier François Legault said the province has the capacity to fight about 40 fires at the moment — and the usual reinforcements from other provinces have been strained by conflagrations in Nova Scotia and elsewhere.
Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre spokesperson Jennifer Kamau said more than 950 firefighters and other personnel have already arrived from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and more will be arriving soon.
In Washington, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that President Joe Biden has sent more than 600 firefighters and equipment to Canada and that his administration has contacted some U.S. governors and local officials about providing assistance.
The largest town in Northern Quebec — Chibougamau, population about 7,500 — was evacuated Tuesday, and Legault said the roughly 4,000 residents of the northern Cree town Mistissini would likely have to leave Wednesday.
Eastern Quebec got some rain Wednesday, but Montreal-based Environment Canada meteorologist Simon Legault said no significant rain is expected for days in the remote areas of central Quebec where the wildfires are more intense.
U.S. National Weather Service meteorologist Zach Taylor said the current weather pattern in the central and eastern U.S. is essentially funneling in the smoke. Some rain should help clear the air somewhat in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic this weekend or early next week, though more thorough relief will come from containing or extinguishing the fires, he noted.
Across the border, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul warned the public to “prepare for this over the long haul." New York City Mayor Eric Adams told residents of the United States' most populous city to limit outdoor activities and parks officials closed beaches as smoke smudged out the skyline.
The Federal Aviation Administration paused some flights bound for LaGuardia Airport and slowed planes to Newark Liberty because the smoke was limiting visibility. The smoke also contributed to delayed arrivals at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.
Schools in multiple states canceled sports and other outdoor activities, shifting recess and lunch time inside. Live horse racing was canceled Wednesday and Thursday at Delaware Park in Wilmington. Organizers of Global Running Day, a virtual 5K and celebration of running, advised participants to monitor the air quality in their cities and change their running plans accordingly.
Some political demonstrations in spots from Manhattan to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, were moved indoors or postponed, and striking Hollywood writers were pulled off picket lines in the New York metropolitan area.
Sitting in a Brooklyn park with a black face mask on, nanny Meagan Bobb said she was surprised by how bad the air was.
“The little girl was coughing, and I was having problems breathing when I was walking around, so we’re looking to go inside somewhere soon,” Bobb said.
The smoke exacerbated health problems for people such as Vicki Burnett, 67, who has asthma and has had serious bouts with bronchitis.
After taking her dogs out Wednesday morning in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Burnett said, “I came in and started coughing and hopped back into bed.”
Still, she stressed that she's concerned for Canadians, not just herself.
“It’s unfortunate, and I’m having some problems for it, but there should be help for them,” she said.