Smoke from wildfires: Millions of people in North America face dangerous air quality, due to wildfires in Canada

By | June 7, 2023

More than 400 active wildfires erupted across Canada Tuesday night, according to authorities, exacerbating a wildfire season that has forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, created a sense of anxiety across the country and triggered air quality alerts hundreds of miles south in the United States.

The danger from wildfires, which in recent weeks have stretched from British Columbia on the west coast to Nova Scotia nearly 2,900 miles away to the east, was driven home Tuesday in the nation’s political heartland. A thick haze hung over Parliament Hill and the imposing neo-Gothic building that houses the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. The sun was obscured by smoke, the sky an apocalyptic orange hue.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said hundreds of soldiers have been deployed across the country to help with firefighting efforts. This is a scary time for many people, Trudeau said earlier this week, noting that many Canadians who have had to evacuate in recent days have only had a few hours to pack before fleeing their homes.

Bill Blair, the minister of emergency preparedness, told reporters last week that in May an area of ‚Äč‚Äčabout 2.7 million hectares, or about 6.7 million acres, of forest in Columbia Britannica, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and the Northwest Territories had been burned. The equivalent of more than 5 million football pitches have burned in Canada so far this year, he wrote on Twitter.

In a country known for its picturesque landscapes and order, out-of-control fires have fueled unease and underlined the dangers of global warming. Scientific research suggests that heat and drought associated with climate change are the main reasons for the increase of bigger and more intense wildfires affecting the country.

A plane dropped a mixture of water and flame retardant on a fire in Barrington Lake, Nova Scotia last week.Credit…Government of Nova Scotia, via Reuters

The fires also underlined the interconnectedness between Canada and its neighbor to the south with smoke from the hundreds of wildfires raging across eastern Canada casting a foggy pall over New York City and polluting air quality from Minnesota to Massachusetts.

In eastern Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, home to most of the country’s population, who had hitherto been largely immune to wildfires in far-flung provinces, Tuesday put an end to any sense of complacency. Ottawa was among the places in Ontario with the highest health risk due to poor air quality, according to local authorities.

Clouds of smoke also hung over Toronto, the country’s financial capital, on Tuesday night and schools announced that students would spend Wednesday recess inside. During the day, an acrid odor filled parts of the city as many residents avoided going outside.

With smoke from wildfires forecast for Toronto, is it time to bring the masks back? asked The Toronto Star, evoking bad memories of pandemic times.

With more than 160 fires active in Quebec on Tuesday, some Montreal residents closed their windows. Smog is hanging over parts of the city, and health authorities have advised residents of Laval, a city north of Montreal, to wear N95 masks.

The fires also damaged businesses, with many mining companies suspending operations in Quebec.

Katrina Eyk, a senior meteorologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, the ministry that coordinates environmental policy, said winds drove plumes of fire smoke from Quebec across southern Ontario, affecting air quality and visibility. Canadian health authorities have warned that smoking can cause symptoms ranging from headaches and watery eyes to coughing, dizziness, chest pains and heart palpitations.

Dealing with a fire behind a residential property in Kamloops, British Columbia on Monday.Credit…Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

It’s still pretty shitty out there, Ms. Eyk said from Toronto on Tuesday night. But on Thursday, it appears that with the wind shifting overall to the northeast, that plume could move directly over the Greater Toronto Area and give some pretty bad conditions.

Fires have already rocked British Columbia and Alberta, an oil and gas-producing province, where residents of its largest city, Calgary, have sat down to breakfast for the past few weeks as pungent smoke seeped from cracks under the roofs. house doors.

On Canada’s east coast, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a fire late last month forced the evacuation of more than 16,000 people.

Michael Mehta, an environmental social scientist and professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, said the visceral reality of smoke billowing over major cities could prompt renewed debate about the risks of climate change.

Until now, he said, many on the east coast had not been exposed, firsthand, to the health risks of air pollution from wildfires that have gripped western provinces in recent years. There is essentially a disconnect, she said. They have not had this experience.

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