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US Marine Corps rehearsing while the Washington Monument is covered in a thick layer of smoke in the background. Alamy Stock Photo

US cities still shrouded in toxic haze as reinforcements reach Canada wildfires

Flights across the US were delayed while residents in Washington have been advised to use high-caliber masks.

LAST UPDATE | 8 Jun 2023

SMOKE FROM CANADIAN wildfires continued to shroud US cities in a noxious haze today, forcing flight delays and cancellations to outdoor activities as environmental groups called for urgent action to tackle climate change.

Residents in the capital Washington awoke to an acrid smell and orange-tinged skies, with the Environmental Protection Agency rating parts of the mid-Atlantic region at “Code Maroon,” the highest category of the Air Quality Index, signaling hazardous conditions.

This made some parts of the United States among the most polluted in the world, worse than cities in South Asia and China that normally dominate global rankings, with the situation not expected to improve until the weekend.

“Today’s air quality is extremely unhealthy,” tweeted Washington’s Department of Energy and Environment, as the city advised residents to avoid exercising outdoors, keep windows shut and use high-caliber masks.

The White House postponed an outdoor Pride event, though a parade and festival this weekend remain on course now. The National Zoo meanwhile announced it would close “for the safety of our animals, our staff and our guests.”

And the Washington Nationals, the capital’s Major League Baseball team, announced it was postponing its afternoon game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

statue-of-liberty-viewed-from-pier-a-lower-manhattan-new-york-can-hardly-be-made-out-due-to-pollution-levels-air-pollution-levels-are-set-to-reach-above-200-aqi-record-levels-today-8th-of-june-20 The Statue of Liberty viewed from Pier A in lower Manhattan, New York can hardly be made out due to pollution levels. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Hemadri Vora, a 42-year-old tourist from Mumbai, was spending the day with her family in Washington after a visit to New York.

“It’s a little disappointing,” she said, though she was used to similar pollution levels back home. “Obviously, the pictures are not going to be very clear.”

Public schools in the capital canceled all outdoor activities including recess, physical education, athletic practices and competitions.

The Federal Aviation Administration meanwhile said low visibility had forced it to take steps to “manage the flow of traffic safely into New York City, DC, Philadelphia and Charlotte.”

Flights to a number of other US airports have also been delayed.

Environmental groups were quick to draw attention to climate change, which is creating warmer, drier conditions that are increasing the risk and extent of wildfires.

“This is the climate crisis, here and now, causing dangerous air pollution and threatening the health of millions of people,” said May Boeve, Chief Executive of

Her comments echoed UN chief Antonio Guterres, who tweeted: “With global temperatures on the rise, the need to urgently reduce wildfire risk is critical.

“We must make peace with nature. We cannot give up.”

The smoke has moved over Greenland and Iceland since 1 June and was expected to reach Norway today, the Norwegian Climate and Environmental Research Institute said, but was not expected to be a health concern.

‘Reminded me of 9/11′

Skies were noticeably clearer in New York compared to the day before, even as the air quality index remained high.

Officials handed out face coverings at train stations, bus depots and parks.

Linda Juliano, a 65-year-old secretary, gladly accepted one at Grand Central station in Midtown Manhattan.

the-sun-rises-behind-the-one-world-trade-center-while-the-smoke-from-canada-wildfires-covers-the-manhattan-borough-as-it-is-seen-from-liberty-state-park-on-june-8-2023-in-new-jersey-credit-brazi The sun rises behind the One World Trade Center, while the smoke from Canada wildfires covers the Manhattan borough as it is seen from Liberty State Park in New Jersey. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she told AFP, describing the sepia-tinged smog that engulfed New York on Wednesday as “scary.”

“It reminded me a lot of 9/11, seeing the sky all smoky and everything,” said Juliano, who kept the windows closed and the air conditioner on at her home in Huntington, Long Island.

New York governor Kathy Hochul said the state was making a million N95 masks – the kind prevalent at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic – available at state facilities, including 400,000 in New York City.

She also urged residents to stay put.

“You don’t need to go out and take a walk. You don’t need to push the baby in the stroller,” Hochul said last night. “This is not a safe time to do that.”

So far, officials said, New York City has yet to see an uptick in 911 emergency calls related to respiratory issues and cardiac arrests.

Meanwhile in Canada, pollution from wildfires were expected to peak today in Toronto, Environment Canada said.

With nearly 800,000 hectares affected, according to the Society for the Protection of Forests Against Fire (SOPFEU), Quebec is experiencing a historic season.

Twice as many blazes have been recorded this year compared to the average over the past ten years.

Today, the French-speaking province still had more than 150 active fires, including nearly 90 out of control.

New reinforcements – from the United States, France and Portugal – are expected in the hours and days to come. More than 12,000 people have been evacuated within the space of a few days.

The situation remains worrying in several regions, explained Stephane Caron, of SOPFEU.

“We are only at the very beginning of this fire season. We are now entering the period when usually there are beginning to be larger fires in Quebec,” he said.

The risk of a new outbreak is rated “extreme” by authorities in the western part of Quebec.

These blazes are of high intensity and spread rapidly, and are therefore very complex for firefighters to stop, officials say.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to US President Joe Biden by phone yesterday.

Trudeau’s office said he thanked Biden for his support and that both leaders “acknowledged the need to work together to address the devastating impacts of climate change”.

Canadian officials say this is shaping up to be the country’s worst wildfire season ever.

© AFP 2023, with reporting from the Press Association

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