Wildfires Spread Smoke, and Anxiety, Across Canada to the U.S.


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.

Over 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, the capital, the feeling of a country under siege was highlighted on 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 in Ottawa.

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

Climate research suggests that heat and drought associated with global warming are major reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires in Canada.

Canada has the world’s largest intact forest ecosystem. Drought and high heat, which many parts of the country have experienced recently, can make trees vulnerable to fire and dry out dead grass, pine needles, and any other material on the bottom of the forest floor that act as kindling when a fire sweeps through a forest.

Wildfire experts see the signs of climate change in the dryness, intense heat and longer fire season that have made these fires more extreme.

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,” Mr. Trudeau said.

An apocalyptic haze in shades of beige thickened over northeastern U.S. cities throughout the day on 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, D.C., 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 Yankees game in the Bronx and a Phillies game in Philadelphia. As smoke seeped into theaters in New York City, alarming both ticket holders and performers, the Broadway production of “Hamilton” and a Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “Hamlet” both canceled performances.

“People are scared to come out in this smoke,” said Remy Hernandez, 40, a Bronx resident who delivers food orders for Uber Eats and DoorDash. “To me it looks like the world is ending.”

The hazy conditions in New York are likely to continue on 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 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.

“It is rare to see this much wildfire nationally across Canada, all at the same time,” said Rob Schweitzer, executive director, of BC Wildfire Services in British Columbia. “In the past provinces have been able to share resources but now that is under strain given the amount of fire on the landscape.”

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 on Wednesday, Mr. 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.

Health authorities have warned that fire smoke could cause symptoms ranging from sore and watery eyes to coughing, dizziness, chest pains and heart palpitations. Some health officials have advised residents to wear protective masks, conjuring bad memories of pandemic times.

Ms. Hochul, of New York, said the state was releasing 1 million N-95 masks from its stockpile to be given out at public places like parks and subway stations.

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

In Ottawa, the Ottawa Redblacks, the city’s Canadian Football League team, switched from outdoor to indoor practice. And in Toronto, the Blue Jays announced that they would close their domed stadiums for a game against the Houston Astros Wednesday night.

The wildfires were also hurting businesses, with many mining companies suspending operations in Quebec.

The wildfires have rattled British Columbia and Alberta, an oil and gas producing province, for weeks. Roughly 29,000 people were evacuated from Alberta, a number that had fallen on Wednesday to 3,900. On the east coast of Canada, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a wildfire late last month forced the evacuation of more than 16,000 people.

In Ottawa on Wednesday, Bogdan Wozniak, 72, a distraught hot-dog stand vendor, said his business had always been weather dependent, but smoke or fire were other-level challenges. “For smoke you cannot be prepared,” he said. “You have the mask,” he said. “That’s all.”

“I’ll be lucky if I break even today,” he added.

Ian Austen contributed reporting from Toronto, Meagan Gillmore from Ottawa, Meagan Campbell from Halifax, and Michael Paulson from New York.



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