For the second day in a row, New York logged some of the worst air quality of any major city on the planet. But that was hardly the only place to experience the eerie, unsettling and throat-burning smoke that scientists say could become a more common occurrence in a warming world.
In Philadelphia, as elsewhere, schools canceled field trips, moved recess indoors and postponed athletic matches. In Washington, where monuments along the National Mall sat shrouded in the afternoon gloom, commuters donned masks that for the first time in years had nothing to do with a pandemic.
“It looks like Mars outside,” said Dennis Scannell, the co-owner of a typically bustling but now silent baseball and softball training facility in Syracuse. The city’s Air Quality Index — a measure of outdoor pollution — registered 402 late Wednesday morning. Healthy is considered below 50.
In Binghamton, N.Y., the National Weather Service office tweeted about the dimming sky just before 10 a.m. “Sun is no longer visible, everything’s orange, the parking lot lights have come on,” it read, alongside a photo of the otherworldly scene.
As of early Wednesday, Canadian officials reported more than 400 active fires, with roughly 240 listed as “out of control.” The worst-affected province is Quebec, where at least 154 fires have been recorded.
At the current pace, government officials said this week, Canada is on track to experience the worst wildfire season in its recorded history. Already this year, roughly 2,300 wildfires have burned roughly 9.4 million acres, according to government data. In the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia, unusually intense blazes this year have scorched more land than in the past 10 years combined.
Warm and dry conditions will increase wildfire risk in most of Canada this month, according to the Canadian government, which also expects “higher-than-normal fire activity” to continue throughout the wildfire season. The drier weather and high temperatures fueled by a warming atmosphere are exacerbating the damage, Canadian officials say.
“Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildland fires and creating longer fire seasons in Canada,” Michael Norton, a Canadian Forest Service official, told reporters earlier this week. “Historical averages are increasingly not reflective of what we might see in the future, and that is why the word ‘unprecedented’ is increasingly being used.”
Unprecedented also seemed a fair way to describe the sheer scope and intensity of the smoke that cloaked much of the East Coast on Wednesday.
Worsening air quality prompted new warnings from officials throughout the day, as parts of Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere were upgraded to a red, or “unhealthy,” air quality alert. In Boston, the National Weather Service said smoke could linger across southern New England into Thursday.
By Wednesday afternoon, government data showed a startling swath of “unhealthy” air stretching from parts of Upstate New York as far east as Connecticut, and south past Richmond into North Carolina. Portions of New York and Pennsylvania had eclipsed thresholds for “very unhealthy” or even “hazardous” air quality.
Exposure to wildfire smoke can irritate the eyes, throat and sinuses, causing people to cough and making it hard to breathe normally. An insidious type of pollution made up of fine particles, common in smoke and soot and known as PM2.5, can also pose more severe problems in vulnerable groups such as elderly people, pregnant women and children. It can exacerbate conditions such as asthma and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes in some populations.
Many Americans traditionally think of wildfires as a problem largely confined to the West, where in recent years massive and deadly blazes have destroyed parts of California, Oregon, Washington and other states.
But smoke from large fires can travel across the country, blanketing large population centers. One 2021 study documented how smoke from both western wildfires and local sources could be more harmful to residents in the eastern United States than many people assume.
Scientists have also detailed how a warming world can fuel more — and more intense — fires. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of some of the planet’s foremost researchers, has said that unless humans drastically reduce the burning of fossil fuels, wildfire seasons are likely to grow longer and more area will burn.
Marshall Burke, an associate professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University, said the blazes are directly related to a large heat event that happened across Canada in recent weeks, noting the “very clear climate linkages.”
“While these events have been really rare historically, I think all evidence suggests they’ll become less rare in the future as the climate warms,” he said. “So this is something we need to learn to prepare for.”
At the White House on Wednesday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that President Biden was receiving regular updates on the wildfires, and that the United States has deployed more than 600 firefighters and personnel, as well as equipment such as water bombers, to help Canada battle the infernos.
On the floor of the Senate, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) took time to bemoan the “wildfires of unnatural strength” that continue to burn in Canada, “sending toxic air and smoke over the border and over American cities.”
Like many other public officials, he urged those in the path of the smoke to take individual precautions. But he also called the predicament a reminder of the perils posed by a hotter planet.
“We cannot ignore that climate change continues to make these disasters worse. Warmer temperatures and severe droughts mean forests burn faster, burn hotter and burn bigger,” Schumer said. “This smoke and fog over New York and the rest of the Northeast is a warning from nature that we have a lot of work to do to reverse the destruction of climate change.”
But in cities large and small along the East Coast on Wednesday, there was little to do but to wait, to hope that faraway fires would somehow subside and that the noxious cloud of recent days would soon lift.
Six-year-old Mikhail Williams missed recess after it was canceled by his school in the District. Mikhail and his father, Duane Williams, instead played tag in a downtown park, where they noticed the effect of the smoke.
“It’s like when you swallow sand,” the elder Williams said. “I can feel the phlegm building up in the back of my throat.”
“My eyes are burning,” Mikhail said.
“Do you know where the fire is?” asked his grandmother, Donna Williams, 66.
“Antarctica?” the boy replied. “Can you say Canada?” his father asked.
New Yorkers, some of whom dug out their pandemic-era face coverings, meandered amid smoke that had descended to street level. The yellowish tint obscured the skyline in every direction. Some complained their eyes were irritated; others said they had developed a cough. Adams (D) said the city’s Air Quality Index reached 484 at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Mark Strauss, 58, said the last time he remembers this kind of air quality problem uptown was after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “when we got smoke from the site downtown,” he said. “You could see the smoke in the sky. It was similar to that.”
In Oswego County, north of Syracuse, where air pollution skyrocketed to hazardous levels Wednesday, Joseph Provost was along those “buttoned up” in his house, alongside his wife and children. He has asthma, and ever since the smoke from the wildfires rolled in, he has felt it: scratchy throat, congestion in his chest, some trouble breathing.
He made sure all the windows stayed closed. His inhaler was close at hand.
“I’m probably not going to go outside unless I absolutely have to,” he said. “It’s that bad.”
Outside Rochester, where he has spent 30 years as a meteorologist, Richard McCollough rose on Wednesday to begin his morning shift broadcasting the forecast on WDKX, a local radio station.
From his window, he saw a scene bathed in an orange glow. Visibility was down to less than a mile. McCollough had worked in the past in Los Angeles and Cincinnati, and he knows exactly how the right combination of fire and wind can produce a smoky haze that blankets a city.
He just never expected to see it outside his farm in Upstate New York. On Wednesday, he did something for the first time ever in his current job: deliver an air quality warning.
“It’s never happened before,” said McCollough, 62. “I’ve never had to do this on air.”
Amudalat Ajasa, Matthew Cappucci, Amanda Coletta, Dan Diamond, Emmanuel Felton, Ian Livingston, Justine McDaniel, Mary Claire Molloy, Joshua Partlow and Joanna Slater contributed to this report.