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, postponing Major League Baseball games and prompting people to fish out pandemic-era face masks.
Canadian officials asked other countries for additional help fighting more than 400 blazes nationwide that already have displaced 20,000 people. The blazes this year have already scorched roughly 9.8 million acres of forest -- more than 10 times the acreage that had burned by this time last year, officials say.
Air with hazardous levels of pollution extended into the New York metropolitan area, central New York state and parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Massive tongues of unhealthy air extended as far as North Carolina and Indiana, affecting millions of people.
The air quality index, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency metric for air pollution, exceeded a staggering 400 at times in Syracuse, New York City and Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. A level of 50 or under is considered good; anything over 300 is considered "hazardous," when even healthy people are advised to curtail outdoor activity.
In Baltimore, 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.
"I walked outside this morning, and it was like a waft of smoke," said Funk.
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.
Check out this almost unbelievable time-lapse of wildfire smoke consuming the World Trade Center and the New York City skyline.— NWS New York NY (@NWSNewYorkNY) June 7, 2023
Those vulnerable to poor air quality, including seniors and young children, should limit time outdoors if possible.
More: https://t.co/ChRuWv7X6E pic.twitter.com/mtKtLun8lN
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that hundreds of soldiers had been deployed across the country to help with firefighting efforts. "Unfortunately over the past years, we've seen extreme weather events increase in their intensity and their impact on Canadians as well as on their cost to families, to provinces and to the federal budget," Trudeau said.
Smoke from the blazes in various parts of the country has been lapping into the U.S. since last month but intensified with recent fires in Quebec, where about 100 were considered out of control Wednesday -- which, unsettlingly, was national Clean Air Day in Canada.
The level of unpredictability caused by the blazes is so high that provincial wildfire authorities in British Columbia have warned residents to have a go-bag at the ready, along with an evacuation plan.
Millions of Canadians in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal woke up Wednesday to a haze of smoke over large sections of their cities, as wildfires expanded to places that had previously felt largely immune to fires blazing in faraway provinces.
The smoke was so thick in downtown Ottawa, Canada's capital, that office towers just across the Ottawa River were barely visible. In Toronto, Yili Ma said her hiking plans were canceled and she was forgoing restaurant patios, a beloved Canadian summer tradition.
"I put my mask away for over a year, and now I'm putting on my mask since yesterday," the 31-year-old lamented.
Quebec Premier François Legault said the province currently has the capacity to fight about 40 fires -- 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 arrived from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and more are due soon.
In Washington, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden has sent more than 600 firefighters and equipment to Canada. His administration has contacted some U.S. governors and local officials about providing assistance, she said.
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 of Mistissini would likely have to leave Wednesday. But later in the day, Mistissini Chief Michael Petawabano said his community remains safe and asked residents to wait for instructions from Cree officials.
The scope and scale of the wildfires in Canada have underscored the challenges of fighting fires in a vast country. Wildfire emergency response management is handled by each of the 10 provinces and three territories in Canada, but hundreds of blazes across the country have stretched local resources thin, and renewed calls for a national firefighting service.
"It is rare to see this much wildfire nationally across Canada, all at the same time," said Rob Schweitzer, the executive director of BC Wildfire Service in British Columbia. "In the past, provinces have been able to share resources, but now that is under strain given the amount of fire on the landscape."
Richard Cannings, a member of Parliament with the New Democratic Party, said wildfire activity had made it imperative to keep a national stockpile of equipment, such as a squadron of water bombers, that could quickly be deployed.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Trudeau did not address the call for a national firefighting service, but said that his government was considering creating a federal disaster response organization. "We need to continue to make sure we are doing everything possible to both keep Canadians safe when these extreme weather events hit, but also make sure we're doing everything we can to predict, protect and act ahead of more of these events coming."
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 said.
According to Seth Clarke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock, Arkansas sits on the "Western periphery" of the "counterclockwise [air] flow" that's circulating the smoke from the Canadian wildfires.
"It's definitely worse to the east of us for sure," Clarke said, noting that "it looks like it's affecting the Memphis area probably the most."
"It is fairly difficult, especially across the Northeast there, for the smoke to really make it into Arkansas," Clarke said. "But what's happening there is an upper level low pressure ... it's centered just to the north of Vermont."
The low pressure movement is circulating the wildfire smoke down through Michigan to the southern portion of the country.
"That low is expected to depart to the east in the coming days," Clarke said. "So we should be, you know ... the effects for us should be kind of minimized over the next little bit until the next low pressure system moves into that neck of the woods."
WORST AIR QUALITY RECORDED
The hazy conditions in New York are likely to continue today and Friday, and could linger over the weekend, according to Basil Seggos, commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. On Wednesday, he told reporters that clearing the skies would take an act of God. "We'll pray for rains up north and for winds to shift," he said.
Much of New York state was under an air quality health advisory alert that was to remain in effect until Wednesday night.
By Wednesday afternoon, the air quality index in the broader New York City region surpassed 400, the worst since the Environmental Protection Agency began recording air quality measurements in 1999.
Such a reading indicates that the air is unhealthy for all people, not just the vulnerable, and is somewhat typical in smoggy megacities like Jakarta, Indonesia, or New Delhi. But it is unusual for New York City, where decades of state and federal laws have helped reduce emissions and clear the air, especially in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said 1 million N95 masks would be available at state facilities. New York City closed beaches, and Mayor Eric Adams told residents to stay indoors as much as possible as smoke smudged out the skyline. The Bronx and Central Park zoos closed early and brought their animals inside. In Central Park, the popular outdoor Shakespeare in the Park performances were put off through Friday.
The Federal Aviation Administration paused some flights bound for LaGuardia Airport and slowed planes to Newark Liberty and Philadelphia because the smoke was limiting visibility. It also contributed to delayed arrivals at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, where a heavy haze shrouded the Washington Monument and forced the cancellation of outdoor tours.
Major League Baseball put off games in New York and Philadelphia, and even an indoor WNBA game in Brooklyn was called off. On Broadway, "Killing Eve" star Jodie Comer had difficulty breathing and left the matinee after 10 minutes; the show restarted with an understudy, show publicists said.
Schools in multiple states canceled sports and other outdoor activities, shifting recess inside. Live horse racing was canceled Wednesday and today at Delaware Park in Wilmington. Organizers of Global Running Day, a virtual 5K, advised participants to adjust their plans according to air quality.
New Jersey closed state offices early, and some political demonstrations in spots from Manhattan to Harrisburg, Penn., were moved indoors or postponed. Striking Hollywood writers were pulled off picket lines in the New York metropolitan area.
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, Mich., 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.
Health authorities have warned that fire smoke could cause symptoms ranging from sore and watery eyes to coughing, dizziness, chest pains and heart palpitations.
Meteorologists said they expected the plume of smoke buffeting Toronto, Canada's largest city and its financial capital, to worsen today because of winds, and Environment Canada warned residents to brace for worsening air quality.
Information for this article was contributed by Jennifer Peltz, Rob Gillies, Randall Chase, Michael Hill, David Koenig, Aamer Madhani, Brooke Schultz, Mark Scolforo, Lea Skene, Carolyn Thompson, Ron Todt, Corey Williams, Mark Kennedy, Jake Offenhartz, Karen Matthews and Julie Walker of The Associated Press, Dan Bilefsky, Liam Stack and Vjosa Isai and by Daniel McFadin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.