Smoke from West Coast wildfires floats over New York City, causing air pollution

Wildfires raging in the western United States and Canada, including a “monster” two-week-old fire in Oregon, sent smoke and soot blowing eastward on Tuesday, sending harmful air pollution into New York City.

In 13 western states, more than 80 major active wildfires in recent weeks have charred nearly 1.3 million acres (526,090 hectares) of drought-dried vegetation, an area larger than Delaware, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho.

Several hundred fires have been started in western and central Canada. Among them were 86 classified as out of control in British Columbia alone on Tuesday, prompting officials there to declare a state of emergency.

The jet stream and other intercontinental air currents have carried thousands of miles of smoke and ash. People in distant cities felt the air pollution in their eyes, noses and lungs.

In New York City, where a gray haze shrouded the Manhattan skyline, the air quality index (AQI) for particulate matter reached 170, a level considered harmful even for healthy individuals and nine times higher than the World Health Organization’s exposure recommendations. Philadelphia hit 172.

Other northeastern cities, including Boston and Hartford, Connecticut, had readings in the unhealthy zone above 150. Residents were advised to wear face masks outside to limit exposure.

Smoke billowing in the United States from Canadian wildfires in Manitoba and Ontario likely pushed the AQI in Detroit and Cleveland above 125, which is considered unhealthy for susceptible individuals, said NIFC meteorologist Nick Nauslar.

Smoke from wildfires from Canada’s western provinces reached eastern Ontario, triggering widespread government air quality warnings.

In the western US, parts of Idaho and Montana suffered from unhealthy levels of air pollution from 40 large nearby fires and smoke from the Bootleg fire in southern Oregon, currently the largest in the United States.

According to a University of Alberta study released this week, heavy exposure to wildfire smoke has been linked to long-term respiratory effects for firefighters, including a greatly increased risk of developing asthma.

The general population also faces serious health effects.

“Exposure to wildfires…increases susceptibility to respiratory infections, including COVID, increases the severity of such infections and makes recovery more difficult,” Federal Air Force adviser Margaret Key said by email.

‘Monster Brand’ enters 3rd week

The wildfires themselves posed a more immediate risk to life and property.

The Bootleg fire has blackened 388,600 acres (157,260 hectares) of desiccated scrub and wood in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest, about 250 miles south of Portland, since the July 6 eruption. Only three other Oregon wildfires in the past century have burned more area.

By Tuesday, an army of some 2,200 had managed to enclose about 30% of the blaze’s perimeter as the blaze spread further east and north.

Incident commander Rob Allen said in his daily report that tinder-dry fuels in the fire zone would “keep burning and producing smoke for weeks.”

“Fighting this fire is a marathon, not a sprint,” Allen wrote. “We’ll be in this for as long as it takes to safely contain this monster.”

At least 67 homes have been destroyed and a further 3,400 are listed as endangered, with an estimated 2,100 people ordered to evacuate or be ready to flee as soon as possible.

The fires in the west, which mark a heavier-than-normal start to the wildfire season, have coincided with record-shattering heat that has devastated much of the region in recent weeks, causing hundreds of deaths.

Scientists have said the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires is largely due to prolonged drought and increasing periods of extreme heat that are symptomatic of climate change.

Bootleg’s fire is so large that it has sometimes generated its own weather — towering pyrocumulus clouds of condensed moisture sucked up by the fire’s column of smoke from burned vegetation and the surrounding air.

These clouds can cause lightning storms and high winds that can ignite new fires and spread the flames.

(REUTERS)

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