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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Wildfires spread smoke, and anxiety, across Canada to the US

The view from the CN Tower in Toronto as wildfires burned in Ontario and Quebec on Tuesday.

By Dan Bilefsky, Liam Stack and Vjosa Isai

Canada on Wednesday was struggling to fight an extraordinary outbreak of wildfires across the country that sent smoke pouring over the border and forced millions of Canadians and Americans to stay indoors as skies darkened over large portions of both nations.

More than 400 fires burned in Canada, and blazes this year have already scorched roughly 9.8 million acres of forest — more than 10 times the acreage that had burned by this time last year, officials say — sending smoke billowing down the east coast of the United States, from New York past Washington, D.C., and as far west as Minnesota.

In Canada, a country known for its picturesque landscapes and orderliness, the out-of-control wildfires have stoked national anxiety. They have also stretched firefighting resources in a sprawling and decentralized country where firefighting is managed at the provincial level, and made coordination more difficult at a time when global warming has intensified the wildfire season.

In Ottawa, Ontario, the capital, the feeling of a country under siege was highlighted Wednesday by the sight of a thick haze hovering over Parliament Hill and over the soaring Gothic Revival building that is part of Canada’s Parliament.

The effects from the Canadian wildfires stunned the United States. Smoke obscured the New York City skyline Wednesday, turning the outlines of its skyscrapers into ghostly silhouettes.

Across a swath of North America, commuters slipped on COVID masks to walk the streets; schools canceled field trips and some closed; flights were canceled; and officials urged millions of people to stay indoors as smoke blotted out the sun.

In Canada, the wildfires have exerted a heavy human toll, including displacing tens of thousands of people. The level of unpredictability caused by the blazes is so high that provincial wildfire authorities in British Columbia have warned local residents to have a go-bag at the ready, along with an evacuation plan.

Millions of Canadians in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal woke up Wednesday to a haze of smoke over large sections of their cities, as wildfires expanded to places that had previously felt largely immune to fires blazing in faraway provinces.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said that hundreds of soldiers had been deployed across the country to help with firefighting efforts. “Unfortunately over the past years, we’ve seen extreme weather events increase in their intensity and their impact on Canadians as well as on their cost to families, to provinces and to the federal budget,” Trudeau said.

An apocalyptic haze in shades of beige thickened over northeastern U.S. cities throughout the day Wednesday, drawing out anxieties about climate change from everyday New Yorkers and health warnings from Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York and Mayor Eric Adams of New York City.

In the cities most affected, including Buffalo and Binghamton in upstate New York, thick clouds of orange plunged the area into unusually cold temperatures, as conditions worsened across the Northeast. Schools in New York City and Washington canceled outdoor activities for the day, zoos in New York closed early out of concern for the animals, and Philadelphia warned residents to stay inside.

The smoke and poor air quality also led to the cancellation of various cultural performances and sporting events, including a New York Yankees game in the Bronx and a Phillies game in Philadelphia. As smoke seeped into theaters in New York City, alarming ticket holders and performers, the Broadway production of “Hamilton” and a Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “Hamlet” both canceled performances.

The hazy conditions in New York are likely to continue Thursday and Friday, and could linger over the weekend, according to Basil Seggos, the commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. On Wednesday, he told reporters that clearing the skies would take an act of God. “We’ll pray for rains up north and for winds to shift,” he said.

Much of New York state was under an air quality health advisory alert that was to remain in effect until Wednesday night.

By Wednesday afternoon, the air quality index in the broader New York City region surpassed 400, the worst since the Environmental Protection Agency began recording air quality measurements in 1999.

Such a reading indicates that the air is unhealthy for all people, not just the vulnerable, and is somewhat typical in smoggy megacities like Jakarta, Indonesia, or New Delhi. But it is unusual for New York City, where decades of state and federal laws have helped reduce emissions and clear the air, especially in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods.

The scope and scale of the wildfires in Canada have underscored the challenges of fighting fires in a vast country. Wildfire emergency response management is handled by each of the 10 provinces and three territories in Canada, but hundreds of blazes across the country have stretched local resources thin, and renewed calls for a national firefighting service.

Richard Cannings, a member of Parliament with the New Democratic Party, said wildfire activity had made it imperative to keep a national stockpile of equipment, such as a squadron of water bombers, that could quickly be deployed.

Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Trudeau did not address the call for a national firefighting service, but said that his government was considering creating a federal disaster response organization. “We need to continue to make sure we are doing everything possible to both keep Canadians safe when these extreme weather events hit, but also make sure we’re doing everything we can to predict, protect and act ahead of more of these events coming.”

Firefighters from the United States, South Africa, France, Australia and New Zealand, along with members of the Canadian Armed Forces, were supporting overwhelmed local fire crews.

Over the past few weeks, wildfires in Canada have stretched nearly 2,900 miles from British Columbia on the west coast to Nova Scotia in the east, convulsing the country, causing fears about lost livelihoods, burning down properties and endangering health.

Meteorologists said they expected the plume of smoke buffeting Toronto, Canada’s largest city and its financial capital, to worsen Thursday because of winds, and Environment Canada warned residents to brace for worsening air quality.

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