What is going on with the wildfires in Canada—and why have the effects hit New York City particularly hard?

Smoke from wildfires in Quebec, Canada shrouds New York City on Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023.
Smoke from wildfires in Quebec, Canada shrouds New York City on Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023 | Marc A. Hermann / MTA

We’re barely out of the woods with the pandemic, and yet vast regions of North America are dealing with another health hazard: the Canadian wildfires that are relentlessly burning and permeating smoke south of the border—namely New York City. 

The air quality in New York is cited to be the worst in the world: in fact, the air quality has been reported to have reached historically high levels.

Case in point: just minutes into her Broadway matinee performance in the play Prima Facie on Wednesday, British actress Jodie Comer had to be helped off stage because of the toxic fumes, saying she “couldn’t breathe.”

The doom and gloom atmosphere surrounding the city has propelled the internet, not to mention news reporters, to describe the orange haze surrounding the city as “apocalyptic.”

Wildfires aren’t something out of the wild, so what makes what’s happening right now with the air quality in New York so different?

Here is a breakdown of why this year’s wildfires are particularly worrying to the experts. 

The wildfires aren’t completely out of left field 

While wildfires in Canada are certainly nothing new, what’s alarming about this year are the numbers. 

Forbes reported that Canada has already seen 2,214 wildfires this year and 3 million hectares have been ravaged. Compare that to the ten-year average of 1,624 fires, burning 254,429 hectares.

Eric James, a research associate at the University of Colorado, says that fires of the magnitude we are seeing are unusual in the eastern part of North America. This is because the East Coast normally has more rain in the summer than the whole western part of North America. 

Experts say that during a normal season, half of Canada’s wildfires are caused by lightning. These fires make for more than 85% of the destruction. The other half are caused by humans. 

Quebec’s wildfires were ignited by lightning, but officials in Alberta say they don’t know what sparked the fires there. They believe it’s likely human-created conditions: these include discarded cigarette butts and the sparks that fly from moving trains. 

Wildfire season has started earlier than expected 

The Canadian wildfire season tends to run from May through October, and experts say such destruction this early in the season is rare.

What’s especially worrying is that the fires are jumping fire guards and moving closer to populated areas.

The town of Edson in western Alberta, for example, had emergency orders to evacuate on Friday. This is the second evacuation for the town: Edson has been ordered to evacuate in early May as well.

“Because that fire is so out of control, some of the forestry crews have had to back off,” Luc Mercier, the chief administrative officer for Yellowhead County, said in a video statement on one of the town’s Facebook pages. “They can’t fight that fire.”

Over the weekend, it was reported that there are 75 active fires in Alberta with 25 of them beyond control.

Because the fires are so volatile, there is no safe path to attack them directly. 

“The fire season is also lasting longer now because of climate change. Spring is coming weeks earlier and fall is coming weeks later. More time for the fires and grasslands to burn,” Edward Struzik, a fellow at Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University in Canada and author of Dark Days at Noon, The Future of Fire, said in an interview with CBS News.

A perfect storm of events pushed part of the pollution to New York City

James says the unusual weather pattern has pushed pollution down the coast, so this is part of what we’re seeing in New York City.  

What’s also different is that the seemingly small increase in average temperatures is having huge consequences.

“Most fires in the boreal forest of northern Canada are started by lightning. A one-degree celsius increase in temperature amounts to about 12% more lightning,” says Struzik

“So the warmer it gets as the climate heats up, the more triggers there are for fires to burn,” he adds.

It has already become Canada’s most destructive wildfire season in history

 | Quebec Canada Wildfire Smoke Consumes New Jersey and New York City June 7 2023
Source: Anthony Quintano | Quebec Canada Wildfire Smoke Consumes New Jersey and New York City June 7 2023

Just over one month in, Canada is on track to have its most destructive wildfire season in history.

Climate change-driven extreme temperatures and drought have created what experts call a tinderbox.

This means that dry winds and no rain have turned many regions into a tinderbox—an area of land that is readily ignited.

Officials have reported that there are around 240 active fires that are volatile and out of control. The Washington Post reported that more than 160 of the fires are happening in Canada. These are as mentioned Quebec and Alberta, but also British Columbia. 

Natural disasters know no borders

The Canadian crisis has not been limited to the Great White North. 

Reports say that storms off the coast of Nova Scotia (one of Canada’s eastern provinces) has sent smoke from the wildfires southwards to the United States.

Smoke from the fires has spread not only to New York State (directly south of Quebec where some of the wildfires started) and New York City but also across a large portion of the U.S. 

As a matter of fact, the fires have gone as far south as the Georgia-Florida border according to media outlets.

This has affected air quality for millions across the East Coast—and the fires are raging on no immediate signs of slowing down.

New York City has been in an orange haze for days 

On Thursday, New York City recorded one of the worst possible air quality index scores: the city came at 484 out of 500. Delhi, India is usually the one to hold this infamous title, with New York being second.

The reason for the haunting orange hue in the city as well as many other areas occurred because smoke blocks colors with shorter wavelengths, like blue, yellow, and green, reports Forbes. “This [leaves] colors with longer wavelengths, like red and orange, to pass through.”

Last week, New York City had to cancel all outdoor events and the smoke instilled Code Red air quality alerts. Since Thursday evening it was even in Code Purple, as per The Washington Post

New Yorkers were advised to stay indoors but if they did have to go out, to wear high quality masks the same as those recommended at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in the city: N95s or KN95s as these are best able to filter out hazardous particles. 

Climate change is the culprit

We’ve mentioned that the warmer-than-usual weather patterns are likened to kindling for wildfires. 

Those of us who live in North America know that much of the continent has been going through record heat patterns and drought waves. 

This is a surefire sign that climate change is warming the planet. 

Weather specialists say that in the Canadian prairies provinces—these are Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba—where fires now rage, drought and dry conditions have been especially prevalent. 

The Canada Drought Monitor, has said that all of the country’s ten provinces are experiencing an abnormal level of dryness, as well as moderate to severe drought conditions. 

According to Struzik, the jet stream—this is what creates weather and moves it from west to east—is also a factor behind the wildfires.

Struzik says the jet stream is getting weaker because the strength spends on the differences in temperature between the Arctic.

“Now that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world, the jet stream is weaker, a little wonkier. That’s one reason why we see hot, dry weather systems stall, allowing heat domes to build and set the stage for fire,” he told CBS News. 

According to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System, the destruction from the fires up to this point in the season has been a whopping 13 times worse than the ten-year average.

Canada has committed all of its natural resources to get the fires under control

Harsh weather conditions are fueling these fast-spreading fires, making them extremely difficult to combat.

Canada is currently standing at  “national preparedness level 5.” This means the country has fully committed all of its national resources to mobilize the fight against the fires.

The Government Operations Centre is working diligently to coordinate the federal response to the wildfire situation: officials are working closely with federal and provincial partners to coordinate this assistance.

Here is a comprehensive list of the federal support the Canadian government is implementing to communities affected by the wildfires this year. 

Countries from all ends of the earth have been enlisted to suppress the wildfires

Chris Stockdale, a wildland fire research officer with the Canadian Forest service said the Level 5 declaration means that international liaison officers from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are flying in to help fight the fires.

On Friday, 200 South African firefighters landed in Edmonton, Alberta to help fight the wildfires.

Former First Lady of California Maria Shriver posted the following on Instagram:

“There is good in the world! I know it, and I see it. And this video is proof of just a little of the good I have seen just happening this week! We saw pictures of the East Coast with orange skies due to horrific fires in Canada causing massive air quality issues, but the fires in Canada also were of grave concern. This video from @benphillips76 shows 200 South African firefighters landing in Edmonton, Canada to help fight the wildfires. What is some good you have seen this week?” #movehumanityforward

Also read: Why are Hollywood workers striking and how will it impact the industry?

Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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