Millions breathing hazardous air as smoke from Canadian wildfires streams south over US

Published: Jun. 7, 2023 at 12:54 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 7, 2023 at 8:46 PM CDT

NEW YORK (AP) — 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. 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.

“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.

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 physical 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.

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 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.

Americans are under alerts amid Canadian wildfires. (CNN, WXYZ, WBTV, CTV, @CHRISRUEL268 VIA SPECTE, TMX, GREEN BROOK VOLUNTEER FIRE COMPANY, MATTY BEE)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter that he spoke by phone with Biden and “thanked him for all the help Americans are providing as we continue to fight these devastating wildfires.”

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.

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.

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. Zoos in the Bronx and Central Park closed early and brought their animals inside.

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.

Haze blankets over monuments on the National Mall in Washington, Wednesday, June 7, 2023, as...
Haze blankets over monuments on the National Mall in Washington, Wednesday, June 7, 2023, as seen from Arlington, Va. Smoke from Canadian wildfires is pouring into the U.S. East Coast and Midwest and covering the capitals of both nations in an unhealthy haze. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)(AP)

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 of “Prima Facie” after 10 minutes; the show restarted with an understudy, show publicists said. “Hamilton” and “Camelot” canceled Wednesday evening performances, with “Hamilton” publicists saying the the deteriorating air quality “made it impossible for a number of our artists to perform.” In Central Park, the popular outdoor Shakespeare in the Park performances were put off through Friday.

Schools in multiple states canceled sports and other outdoor activities, shifting recess inside. Live horse racing was canceled Wednesday and Thursday 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, Pennsylvania, 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, 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.

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Gillies reported from Toronto. Contributing were Associated Press journalists Randall Chase in Dover, Delaware; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; David Koenig in Dallas; Aamer Madhani in Washington; Brooke Schultz in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania; Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Lea Skene in Baltimore; Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York; Ron Todt in Philadelphia; Corey Williams in West Bloomfield, Michigan; and Ron Blum, Mark Kennedy, Jake Offenhartz, Karen Matthews and Julie Walker in New York.

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This story has corrected the attribution of material about forecast for rain in Quebec to Montreal-based Environment Canada meteorologist Simon Legault, not Quebec Premier François Legault.