Smoke from the Canadian wildfires continued to cloud US cities on Thursday, forced to delay flights and cancel outdoor activities.
Washington residents woke up to a sour smell and orange-tinged skies, and the Environmental Protection Agency classified parts of the mid-Atlantic region as “Code Red Dark”, the highest category of the air quality index and warns of dangerous conditions.
This has turned some areas of the United States in the most polluted in the world, worse than cities in South Asia and China that normally dominate global rankings. The situation is not expected to improve until the weekend.
“This morning, millions of Americans are suffering from the effects of smoke from the devastating wildfires burning across Canada, another stark reminder of the impacts of climate change,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
He added that he will send more resources to Canada, including additional firefighters, firefighting equipment and tankers. This will be added to 600 troops sent last month.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 111 million people were sheltered by air quality alerts in a large part of the Northeast United States.
“Today’s air quality is extremely unhealthy,” the Washington City Department of Energy and Environment tweeted.
“The general public may experience health effects and sensitive groups may have more serious problems.”
On public transportation, passengers wore N-95 masks and the National Zoo closed to care for “the animals, our staff and new visitors.”
In Washington, an event for Gay Pride month was canceled, as was a professional baseball game. Public schools suspended all outdoor activities, including physical exercises and competitions.
The Federal Aviation Administration said low visibility made it necessary to “manage traffic flow safely in New York City, DC, Philadelphia and Charlotte.”
Flights to New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Philadelphia International Airport resumed after a pause.
Environmental groups have warned of climate change, which is creating hotter, drier conditions that increase the risk and spread of wildfires.
“It is the climate crisis, here and now, that causes dangerous air pollution and threatens the health of millions of people,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org.
His comment coincided with those of UN chief Antonio Guterres, who tweeted on Wednesday: “With temperatures rising around the world, it is urgent to reduce the risk of forest fires.”
For his part, White House spokesman Andrew Bates lashed out at the Republican opposition for “subscribing to disproved conspiracy theories, which deny the existence and nature of climate change.”
Memories of 9/11
The sky was noticeably clearer in New York on Thursday compared to the day before but the pollution rate was still high.
Agents offered people masks at train stations, bus stops and parks.
Linda Jiuliano, a 65-year-old secretary, accepted one. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she told AFP, describing the sepia smog that engulfed New York on Wednesday as “terrifying.”
“It reminded me a lot of 9/11 to see the sky full of smoke,” said Jiuliano, who kept the windows closed and the air conditioner running in her Huntington, Long Island, home.
Meanwhile, in Canada, pollution from the fires is expected to peak Thursday in Toronto, according to the federal environment agency, Environment Canada.
Quebec is experiencing a historic season with almost 800,000 hectares affected, according to the Society for the Protection of Forests against Fires (SOPFEU).
This year there were twice as many fires as the average of the last ten years.
On Thursday, that Canadian province still had more than 150 active outbreaks, of which about 90 were out of control.
New reinforcements from the United States, France and Portugal are expected in the coming hours and days. More than 12,000 people have been evacuated in a few days.
The situation remains worrying in many regions, said Stephane Caron of SOPFEU.
“We are only at the beginning of the fire season. We are entering the period when larger fires usually start to break out in Quebec,” he said.