During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials encouraged people to spend time outdoors and wear masks inside if they had to be with other people.
This week, officials are again urging people to mask up — but this time, to protect themselves outdoors against smoke.
The tables have turned on the East Coast of the United States this week as wildfire smoke billows down from eastern Canada, prompting officials to urge people to stay indoors as much as possible — and to wear a mask if they go outside.
Wildfires in Quebec and Nova Scotia have sent hazardous smoke as far as North Carolina and northern Europe, disturbing the lives of millions, turning the skies a dystopian orange and underscoring the ever-rising threat of climate change.
“It’s critical that Americans experiencing dangerous air pollution, especially those with health conditions, listen to local authorities to protect themselves and their families,” U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday on Twitter.
In Canada, 20,000 people have been displaced as a result of more than 400 blazes that have burned 3.8 million hectares. Dry conditions and higher-than-normal temperatures have helped trigger fires across the country since May.
Many of the blazes now burning in Quebec were caused by lightning earlier this month.
Starting Wednesday, millions of Americans were urged to stay indoors as the U.S. National Weather Service issued air quality alerts for much of the East Coast. Spending time outdoors could cause respiratory problems as a result of the high levels of fine particulates in the atmosphere, health officials have warned.
The Midwest has not gone unscathed either, with smoke descending on Chicago earlier this week.
According to the private forecasting service AccuWeather, this week marks the worst outbreak of wildfire smoke to shroud the northeastern United States in over two decades. Poor air quality will likely continue into the weekend, the service said.
Up and down the East Coast, school officials canceled recess, sports games and field trips. The New York Yankees, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals are among the professional sports teams that have postponed games as a result of the smoke.
Reduced visibility has also caused flights to be delayed, with the Federal Aviation Administration saying Thursday morning on Twitter it “will likely need to take steps to manage the flow of traffic safely into New York City, DC, Philadelphia and Charlotte.”
Even the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., was closed Thursday due to poor air quality. The air quality in the nation’s capital and surrounding area reached its most dangerous levels in decades on Thursday.
“We’ve deployed more than 600 U.S. firefighters, support personnel, and equipment to support Canada as they respond to record wildfires — events that are intensifying because of the climate crisis,” Biden said on Twitter.
Biden and lawmakers including New York Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez said the Canadian wildfires and subsequent smoke blanketing the East Coast are tied to climate change.
In light of the extreme smoke in New York City, which effectively hid the iconic skyline, Ocasio-Cortez said, “It bears repeating how unprepared we are for the climate crisis.”
In some regions, the air quality index, which evaluates major pollutants like particulate matter produced by fires, was above 400, according to AirNow, which marks 100 as “unhealthy” and 300 as “hazardous.”
The nightmarish landscapes that have gripped social media over the past couple of days may become the new normal as climate change worsens globally.
Last year, the United Nations said the number of extreme wildfires will rise 14% by 2030 and 30% by 2050. The world will be forced to “learn to live with fire,” the U.N. Environment Program report said.
For some parts of the United States, wildfires have already entered the realm of normal. The country’s West has for years been learning to live with wildfires, with California, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico among the states facing some of the worst of the conflagrations.
Some information in this report came from Reuters and The Associated Press.