Why wildfires in Canada will affect air quality for weeks to come

US cities are once again experiencing air quality problems this week as wildfires continue to burn in Canada and smoke drifts south. That smoke includes contaminants, which can exacerbate respiratory conditions and make breathing generally difficult, and could linger for weeks to come.

Typically, fire season in Canada runs through spring and summer, so there is some expectation of wildfires occurring around this time. However, because Canada has experienced exceptionally hot and dry weather this year, it is seeing the most destructive fire season in decades, with a record amount of area burned and smoke emissions released.

Here are answers to five questions about the impact the fires have had, how lawmakers have responded, and what to expect in the coming weeks.

1) How are Canadian bushfires affecting air quality in the US?

The fires have had a significant impact on air quality in several US states. In recent months, they have affected different parts of the country as the locations of the fires and weather conditions have blown the smoke southwards.

In May, western states including Montana and Colorado issued air quality advisories as wildfires in British Columbia and Alberta contributed to smoke in those areas. In early June, East Coast states and cities, including New York and Philadelphia, also issued air quality advisories due to heavy smoke and haze in the region. Earlier this week, Midwestern states bore the brunt of the latest wave of smoke from wildfires, with Detroit and Chicago listed as having the worst air quality in the world. On Wednesday, however, East Coast states also began issuing new alerts as smoke that has traveled as far as Europe moves in that direction.

Currently, more than a dozen U.S. states have issued some form of air quality alert as wildfires in Canada continue. All told, more than a third of Americans live in a place that has a caveat in place.

Smoke from wildfires has increased pollutants, such as particulate matter, in the air, which can disproportionately affect people who have respiratory problems and make breathing more difficult in general. According to CNN, inhaling particulate matter can contribute to health problems including heart disease and asthma.

The Environmental Protection Agency measures air quality using what’s known as the Air Quality Index, or AQI, which effectively tracks how many pollutants are in the air. The lower the AQI of a place, the better. Places with an AQI of 100 or lower have satisfactory air quality, according to the EPA. Meanwhile, a place with an AQI of 101 to 150 has air quality that is harmful to sensitive people, and a place with an AQI of 151 to 200 has air quality that is harmful to a larger population.

When the East Coast was dealing with heavy smoke from wildfires in early June, there were areas with an AQI above 400. This week, Detroit’s AQI shot up to 306.

US residents can check their city’s air quality at this link.

2) How big are the wildfires in Canada?

As of Thursday morning, there were 500 active fires across several provinces across Canada, with the highest number being around 112 centered in the Eastern Province of Quebec and 104 centered in the Western Province of British Columbia. Of these fires, approximately 256 have been deemed out of control by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, meaning they have not yet responded to fire suppression efforts and [are] it should grow.

The number of fires in the eastern provinces of Quebec, Nova Scotia and Ontario this year was particularly high compared to past years, displacing tens of thousands of people. Collectively, Canadian wildfires have burned about 20 million acres this year, far exceeding the scale of the 2021 and 2022 fire seasons.

3) How long have the fires been burning and how long should the smoke from the fires last?

Canada’s annual wildfire season typically runs from May to October, though it’s rarely as destructive this early. Some of the first fires this year started in early May and continued to burn over the following months.

Historically, fire season peaks in July and August and ends by the end of October. Experts have warned that the rest of the season could prove just as damaging as part one.

The images we have seen so far this season are some of the most severe we have ever seen in Canada and current forecasts for the coming months point to the potential for continued above-normal fire activity, said Canada’s Minister for Fire Preparedness. emergencies. Bill Blair told the Associated Press. That means the US is likely to continue to see the effects of these fires for months, including continued smoke and haze.

4) What did the US and Canada do in response?

Canada’s federal government has deployed its military to help with firefighting efforts in multiple provinces. Additionally, the United States and many other countries around the world, including Costa Rica, France and Australia, have dispatched over 1,100 additional firefighters.

The fires have raised questions about Canada’s need to establish a more centralized federal agency to deal with natural disasters, similar to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the United States. Currently, each province is responsible for the frontline response to wildfires in its region, although it may request additional aid and support from the federal government.

Both Canadian and US officials have also faced criticism for a lack of timely information and response to the air quality problems these fires have posed. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been criticized, for example, for failing to provide clear updates on the state of air quality in the region and for making resources such as masks and shelter available to vulnerable populations.

States and cities have been working to issue air quality advisories to their residents so people can better prepare for these developments. Authorities in both countries have also issued guidance encouraging people to use air conditioning while indoors and use an N95 mask outdoors to make sure they protect themselves from dangerous chemicals in the air.

5) Is climate change causing the fires in Canada?

It’s not unusual for Canada to have a wildfire season, but climate change has played a role in exacerbating the size and frequency of wildfires. As the Earth has warmed, it has gotten hotter and drier. Because of this, there has been more firewood available in Canada’s forests and there has also been more lightning, which contributes to many of the country’s wildfires.

Most fires in northern Canada’s boreal forest are caused by lightning. A one degree Celsius increase in temperature is equivalent to about 12% more lightning strikes. So the hotter it gets as the climate warms, the more triggers there are for wildfires, Edward Struzik, a fellow at the Queens Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, told CBS News.

Plus, as climate change gets worse, fires and air quality will get worse, too, according to Morgan Crowley, a Canadian Forest Service fire scientist who spoke with Vox’s Benji Jones:

Climate change will impact Canada more than other regions because it is closer to the poles. In the west, we expect longer fire seasons. And across Canada in general, we expect wildfire seasons to become more extreme. The annual area of ​​burned regions is expected to increase, some forecasts suggesting it could double by 2100.

With climate change, it’s hotter. So our forests are drier. This means they are more stressed and there is more dead fuel. I’m basically a tinderbox when lightning strikes.

Update, June 29, 9:10 AM ET: This story originally ran on June 28 and has been updated with new data on wildfires in Canada.

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