Toxic smoke from Canadian wildfires could linger over vast swaths of the US for days, officials warned, as millions of Americans remained under air pollution warnings.
Across the eastern US residents were again urged to stay inside and limit or avoid outdoor activities on Thursday, as schools in some cities closed, sporting events were canceled and air travel was disrupted.
New York City had the worst air quality of any big city in the world on Thursday morning, according to IQAir, while the second worst was Detroit.
Air quality levels were in the 150-200 range on Thursday, marking a slight improvement from Wednesday when record-setting hazardous levels were observed, per Fox Weather.
Smoke from wildfires in Canada has been moving south into the US since May. Hundreds of fires are burning in Canada, from the western provinces to Nova Scotia and Quebec in the east, where there are more than 150 active fires in a particularly fierce start to the summer season.
The weather system driving the smoke south “will probably be hanging around at least for the next few days,” Bryan Ramsey, a US National Weather Service meteorologist, told the Associated Press.
“Conditions are likely to remain unhealthy, at least until the wind direction changes or the fires get put out,” Ramsey said.
“Since the fires are raging – they’re really large – they’re probably going to continue for weeks. But it’s really just going be all about the wind shift.”
In New Jersey, public schools in Elizabeth and Newark were closed on Thursday, News12 reported, while public schools in Yonkers, New York, also shut their doors. Students in New York City public schools were on a pre-scheduled “non-attendance” day.
New Jersey’s health commissioner, Judith Persichilli, emphasised that the air quality was particularly a risk for young children and suggested those with asthma medicine or rescue inhalers should keep them nearby. She also recommended that children avoid athletic activity.
“Children are particularly at risk,” Persichilli said on Thursday during a news briefing in Newark. “This is because they breathe more air relative to their size.”
Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, said the state was making a million N95 masks – the type prevalent at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic – available at state facilities, including 400,000 in New York City. She urged residents to stay indoors.
“You don’t need to go out and take a walk. You don’t need to push the baby in the stroller,” Hochul said on Wednesday night. “This is not a safe time to do that.”
On Thursday, Eric Adams, the New York mayor, said “right now, the smoke models are not indicating another large plume over the city” and that there was a chance of “significant improvement” throughout Friday.
In Washington, Muriel Bowser, the mayor, ordered schools to cancel outdoor recess, sports and field trips on Thursday. In suburban Philadelphia, officials set up an emergency shelter so people living outside can take refuge from the haze.
More than 400 fires burning across Canada have left 20,000 people displaced. The US has sent more than 600 firefighters and support personnel to assist Canadian firefighters, the White House said on Wednesday.
Joe Biden spoke to Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, by phone on Wednesday. Trudeau’s office said he thanked Biden for his support and that both leaders “acknowledged the need to work together to address the devastating impacts of climate change”.
The Federal Aviation Authority said poor visibility caused by the smoke would continue to affect air travel. On Thursday morning, the FAA paused some flights heading to LaGuardia airport in New York.
In New York City, performances of Hamilton and Camelot were cancelled on Wednesday night due to the difficulties caused by the air pollution, while baseball games in New York and Philadelphia were postponed.
Smoke reached as far south as Alabama on Wednesday, although the National Weather Service said the effects were not as severe.
Canadian officials say this is shaping up to be the country’s worst wildfire season ever. It started early on drier-than-usual ground and accelerated quickly. Smoke from the blazes has been lapping into the US since last month but intensified with recent fires in Quebec, where about 100 were considered out of control on Wednesday.
The smoke was so thick in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, that office towers just across the Ottawa River were barely visible.
Eastern Quebec got some rain on Wednesday, but the Montreal-based Environment Canada meteorologist Simon Legault said no significant rain is expected for days in the remote areas of central Quebec where the wildfires are more intense.
A 2021 study supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association found that climate change has been the main driver of the increase in hot, dry fire weather in the western US. By 2090, global wildfires are expected to increase in intensity by up to 57% thanks to climate change, a United Nations report warned last year.
Associated Press contributed to this report
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