HomeHealthSmoke from wildfires in Canada is impacting air quality in the Northeast

Smoke from wildfires in Canada is impacting air quality in the Northeast

Smoke fills the air in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sunday as an out-of-control fire in a suburb spreads quickly, engulfing several homes and forcing the evacuation of local residents. (Kelly Clark/The Canadian Press via AP)

A wave of early season wildfires in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia is spreading smoke across the Northeast. News outlets from Massachusetts to southeastern Pennsylvania report that residents can smell and see smoke in the air, and experts warn that the reduced air quality poses health risks to residents.

The fires

There are a total of 14 fires in Nova Scotia, the largest of which, at 43,095 hectares, is the province’s “largest wildfire in history,” according to the provincial government. The fires have destroyed 200 homes and prompted evacuation orders for 16,000 residents, and now threaten to spread to Halifax, the provincial capital.

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A map of Canada, with red areas indicating the locations of forest fires.A map of Canada, with red areas indicating the locations of forest fires.

Early season wildfires in Nova Scotia are causing thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes. (Yasin Demirci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Residents in neighboring New Brunswick have also had to evacuate 400 homes. The province saw an “unprecedented” 15 fires break out on Saturday, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said earlier this week.

“It was really heartbreaking, there really is a lot of helplessness,” Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The consequences in the US

As winds push smoke south and west, National Weather Service air quality warnings have increased in southern Michigan and Wisconsin, northern Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

Massachusetts, especially in the Boston area, experienced cloudy skies on Wednesday due to the wildfires. That day, and again on Thursday, the National Weather Service issued a Code Orange air quality warning for Philadelphia and its suburbs. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said Tuesday that air quality would be unhealthy for sensitive groups, and a similar report was released that day for the state of Massachusetts.

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“The health effects of exposure to particulate pollution can range from relatively minor (e.g., eye and respiratory irritation) to more serious health effects (e.g., worsening of asthma and heart failure, and premature death),” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Smoke from the Tantallon wildfire rises over homes in nearby Bedford, Nova Scotia.Smoke from the Tantallon wildfire rises over homes in nearby Bedford, Nova Scotia.

Smoke from the Tantallon Wildfire rises over homes in nearby Bedford, Nova Scotia on Sunday. (Eric Martyn/Reuters)

The role of climate change

It is unusual to see such large wildfires before the start of summer in Nova Scotia’s generally cold and wet climate, but rising temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions are making springs warmer and dry spells more intense become.

Nova Scotia had below-average snowfall last winter, and April saw less than half that month’s average precipitation, making it the driest April on record.

“What’s unique about this situation is the time of year – the fact that it’s happening in May and spreading so quickly,” said Anthony Farnell, chief meteorologist for Canada’s Global News.

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“Climate change is contributing to the volatility,” Halifax Deputy Fire Chief Dave Meldrum said at a news conference Monday.

The risk of early season wildfires is expected to increase in the future as climate change continues.

“Canada as a whole has warmed, including Eastern Canada, and we predict more warming in the future. So that warming would also be expected to increase fires in Eastern Canada,” Nathan Gillett, a research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, a division of the Canadian federal government, told Global News.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has urged governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and 60% by 2035 to limit the extent of global warming.

From a highway, large plumes of smoke can be seen rising in the distance from a wildfire raging in Nova Scotia's Upper Tantallon community.From a highway, large plumes of smoke can be seen rising in the distance from a wildfire raging in Nova Scotia's Upper Tantallon community.

Plumes of smoke rise from a wildfire raging in Nova Scotia’s Upper Tantallon community. (Ben Britton/via Reuters)

The prospects

Scott Tingley, Nova Scotia’s forest conservation manager, said most of the fires were “very likely human caused.”

“A lot of it is probably preventable,” he says.

Dry and windy weather in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick this week has fueled the fires. The possibility of rain on Friday evening is giving locals some hope of relief, but experts warned that lightning from thunderstorms could make matters even worse by causing more fires as they hit parched trees.

Nova Scotia has banned activities in forested areas, with a particular focus on any form of burning.

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