Air Quality Warnings Return In U.S. As Canada Deploys Troops For Wildfires

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Canada deployed its military to help overwhelmed local authorities and emergency workers fight intensifying wildfires, which have burned nearly 25 million acres in the country this year. Heavy smoke from the blazes has prompted authorities in parts of the United States to issue air quality warnings.

On Monday afternoon, Washington, D.C., ranked among the most polluted cities on Earth, because of smoke sweeping over the Appalachians toward the East Coast.

The Canadian armed forces and coast guard will head to British Columbia in the west after the Canadian government approved the province’s request for federal assistance, the government said Sunday. Canadian provinces submit formal requests for federal assistance when an emergency “overwhelms or threatens to overwhelm” them, the government said, adding that British Columbia is “currently experiencing a challenging wildfire season.”

The deployment of military personnel, aircraft and other resources comes as Canada struggles with wildfires that climate change has made more frequent, intense and far-reaching. Smoke from the fires turned the sky orange in parts of the U.S. East Coast last month, prompting local health authorities to issue air quality warnings and ask people, especially the most vulnerable, to stay indoors.

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Since the weekend, steering currents in the atmosphere have carried another massive plume of smoke from Canada into the Lower 48. Code Orange air quality, signifying unhealthy levels for vulnerable people, were predicted to effect parts of 23 states through Tuesday. Cities including Pittsburgh; Chicago; Albany, N.Y.; Baltimore; and Nashville had reached this level through Monday afternoon, according to AirNow, a tracker maintained by a group of U.S. government agencies.

Poor air quality and a grungy haze stretched from Alabama and Georgia to New England and west into the Great Lakes early Monday evening. Smoke also lingered from parts of Montana into the central Great Plains.

This follows a weekend of bad air quality in the northern plains of Montana and the Dakotas, where Code Red conditions were recorded from Friday to Sunday. On Sunday, Code Red air quality stretched from north-central Montana to Iowa and Illinois.

The latest smoke outbreak has been somewhat less intense than events during early and late June, when many spots across the Great Lakes and Northeast were under very unhealthy Code Purple conditions. But it is affecting a larger area and locations farther south than previous events. It is the most extensive smoke plume event this year in the Lower 48 from western Canada wildfires, whereas smoke in June was primarily sourced from Quebec and Ontario.

The smoke is forecast to cover much of the East Coast through at least Tuesday afternoon, extending as far south as Central Florida. However, some of the smoke will be suspended aloft rather than near the ground, reducing its effect on air quality compared with previous episodes. Even where the smoke is confined to higher altitudes, it will cast a milky hazy during the day and intensify sunrise and sunset colors.

The smoke is forecast to be thickest and nearest the ground over interior New York and New England but could also lower air quality in many other areas of the East Coast.

In a Sunday statement, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) said all of New York state would be under air quality health advisories Monday, with the most severely affected areas mostly in Upstate communities.

“If you start looking up tomorrow, you’re going to see a similar situation to what we had a couple weeks ago, because of the air quality degradation resulting from the wildfires in Canada,” she said at a Sunday news conference. “So we’re going to have air quality issues once again.”

By Wednesday, the smoke should push off the East Coast and largely disperse.

As The Washington Post has reported, wildfire smoke is a risk to humans because it contains small particles that can enter the bloodstream through the lungs and cause short-term respiratory issues. In extreme cases, the particles are linked to serious lung, brain and heart problems. Exposure to excess smoke can exacerbate health conditions such as asthma. And it’s more dangerous in certain groups, including elderly people, who are more likely to have vulnerable immune systems, and children, whose lungs have not yet fully developed.

Officials say this year’s wildfire season is unprecedented. As of late Sunday, there were 883 active fires across Canada, of which 581 were out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center. Most of the out-of-control wildfires were in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec, agency data showed.

Two military reconnaissance teams were deployed to British Columbia on Sunday, the Canadian Press reported, citing British Columbia’s Ministry of Emergency Management. A “land force team” is expected to arrive in Prince George, in central British Columbia, and an air force team in Kamloops, roughly 320 miles south of Prince George, the outlet said.

The military has been called in to help with wildfire management before, including in May, when members of the armed forces were deployed to Alberta in western Canada. That deployment lasted more than a month, according to Global News Canada.

The fires have strained the resources of provincial authorities, and the Canadian government has asked other countries to send help. Hundreds of firefighters from the United States, France, Australia and other countries have helped in fighting the fires in recent weeks.

A firefighter died of an injury Saturday while combating a fire in the Northwest Territories, near the border with British Columbia, the local government said Sunday. The statement did not identify the firefighter or say how the person was injured.

It was the second death from the fires in just a few days. Devyn Gale, a 19-year-old member of the BC Wildfire Service, died Thursday while responding to a fire in southeastern British Columbia, authorities said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday that he was “incredibly saddened” to hear “that another firefighter has lost their life battling wildfires.”

Bill Blair, Canada’s emergency preparedness minister, said the death “will be felt by the firefighting community in the Northwest Territories and across Canada.”

“We must never forget the service and sacrifice of our first responders,” he said.

Source: Matzav/(c) 2023, The Washington Post · Annabelle Timsit, Ian Livingston 

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