Wildfires are threatening homes on the West Coast and in Canada, but their smoke is polluting air as far away as New York.
From his uptown Manhattan home in Morningside Heights, Samir Kumar can usually see skyscrapers downtown. But this week, as smoke from wildfires raging in the western United States and Canada rode the jet stream to the East Coast, the city skyline was blurred out.
“To see wildfires have an actual effect on this coast…I was in disbelief,” says Kumar.
The 29-year-old is asthmatic, and as he ran errands in his neighborhood, he says the air felt thick. He experienced shortness of breath, tightness in his chest, and had to take bigger breaths, but he managed to stave off an asthma attack.
Kumar, whose family is from India, says he’s seen air quality that bad in New Delhi, but never in the United States.
Currently, nearly 300 wildfires are burning in British Columbia and about 80 are blazing through states in the U.S. West. The fires are exacerbated by heat waves and prolonged drought in the west, two weather patterns made more extreme by climate change.
The largest fire now is Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, which as of Friday had burned more than 400,000 acres—an area nine times the size of Washington, D.C., where air quality alerts were also issued. Hazy skies reached from Boston to North Carolina. The far-flung impacts highlight that this is no longer just a problem for states like California, where wildfires have been more common.
Research published last January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that, during a large fire event, wildfire smoke can account for 25 percent of dangerous air pollution in the U.S.
“What they’re experiencing on the East Coast from our West Coast fires shows it’s a nationwide and a global problem,” says Mary Prunicki, the director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University.