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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Smoky skies menace US cities, driving residents indoors


The Great Lakes region was enveloped in smoke and haze from Canadian wildfires for two consecutive days this week, prompting millions of Americans to stay indoors in the heart of summer to avoid the unhealthy air.

In Chicago, the city’s famous skyline was shrouded in whitish, smoky clouds as President Joe Biden, visiting for the day, delivered a speech downtown on his economic policies. Pools and summer camps in Madison, Wisconsin, were closed down, forcing parents to scramble to find child care. Cleveland residents who ventured outside could taste the smoke in the air, the worst conditions that many had seen since the first wave from Canadian wildfires descended into the northern United States this month.

“You can even see the quality of the air is awful,” said Vincent Radzilowski, 59, a mail carrier, as he walked his route in suburban Cleveland wearing a mask for the first time in ages. “I’m going to be out here 10 or eight hours today, so that’s a long day to be breathing in this kind of air.”

Forecasters predicted that by Thursday, the worst of the smoke would largely move on from the Midwest, where hazardous air quality paralyzing daily life remains a rare event. But the smoky air was threatening the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions once again, and officials in New York warned residents that they should brace themselves.

Air quality had reached unhealthy levels in parts of the state Wednesday, and was expected to worsen Thursday, according to officials.

At a news conference Wednesday, Mayor Eric Adams of New York City urged residents to take precautions. “In particular, vulnerable residents may want to adjust your outdoor activities,” he said.

In Chicago, the Air Quality Index had reached 217 by midafternoon, according to AirNow, a website and app administered by the Environmental Protection Agency; in Detroit, the index had reached 203; in Cincinnati, 185. Any reading above 100 on the index is a warning to people with respiratory conditions to take precautions.

Climate change has turned once improbably high temperatures into more commonplace occurrences, and is “the elephant in the room” that is worsening wildfires and their effects on air quality, said John C. Lin, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah.

They are now burning longer and more ferociously, and churning out more smoke that contains a complex mix of gases, hazardous air pollutants, water vapor and particle pollution.

Biden arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Wednesday through a dense layer of smoke. A spokesperson said that the administration was monitoring air quality in the city and elsewhere in the country.

“This is part of a growing pattern of extreme weather events that we’re seeing as a result of climate change,” said Olivia Dalton, the deputy White House press secretary.

In the Midwest, residents whose routines were interrupted by the smoke and haze tried to adjust — and wait it out.

Outside a homeless shelter in Detroit, Nicholas Massengale, 33, was looking for a place to rest. The polluted air was getting to him, he said, as he sought a place to sit down.

“This out here is what’s been bothering me,” he said. “It’s leading to headaches and stuff.”

The air quality in Detroit was one of the worst in the country Wednesday, as the wildfire smoke suffused the city in an acrid haze. Michigan environmental officials issued a statewide air quality alert effective through Wednesday, advising children, vulnerable adults and pet owners to reduce their time outdoors.

Still, masks were a rare sight in many cities across the Midwest, as some residents said they were unaware of the severity of the pollution and others tried to take it in stride and proceed with planned events.

Muslims in Chicago observed Eid al-Adha in a lakefront celebration Wednesday, despite the foul, smoky air. In Detroit, Marseille Arbuckle was one of the few people wearing a mask as he walked his dog, Thor, along the Detroit River.

An avid jogger, he said he was not too worried about the air quality affecting his health.

“My dog sneezes and coughs a little more,” Arbuckle, 35, said. “My throat’s a little drier, and it gives me a headache.”

Just north of downtown Detroit, a group of landscapers were taking a break near a basketball court Wednesday. One of the workers, Anthony Williams, 28, said there was not much he could do about the air quality — but they have been wearing masks just in case.

“On Monday, we thought it was just fog,” Williams said, adding that by Tuesday an odor had emerged. “It’s a concern because you smell it all day, so you’re thinking about your health. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Cancellations of summertime activities and events cascaded across the region Wednesday.

Citing dangerous conditions, officials in Pittsburgh postponed an event called “City in the Streets,” where residents of Pittsburgh were supposed to meet and talk with representatives of various city departments.

The Cleveland Department of Public Health’s air quality division and the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency both issued health alerts because of the air. Cleveland called off all outdoor recreation programs for the day, closed its outdoor pools, spray basins and water parks, and canceled trash collection.

The air was so unhealthy that Chris Ronayne, the executive of Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, canceled his annual speech on the state of the county at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, an outdoor venue on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

At the same time, Major League Baseball was pressing ahead with games.

In Pittsburgh, where the Air Quality Index had at one point reached 180, according to AirNow, the Pirates issued a statement saying that they intended to play their game Wednesday against the San Diego Padres. In Chicago, the Cubs had yet to comment by midafternoon on Wednesday evening’s scheduled game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

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