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December 1, 2023

NYC Avoids the Worst as Canada Wildfire Smoke Worsens Air Quality in the Midwest

NYC Avoids the Worst as Canada Wildfire Smoke Worsens Air Quality in the Midwest

The impact of the smoke was less severe than earlier this month and was most strongly felt in cities from Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Chicago and Detroit.

Costumed performers in Times Square wore paper masks over their mouths in addition to their large costume heads.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Smoke from Canadian wildfires once again blanketed parts of the United States on Thursday, disrupting life for millions of Americans across a broad swath of the Midwest just weeks after it plunged New York into a campfire-and-brimstone haze.

The impact of the smoke was less severe this time, though, and was most strongly felt in cities west of the Appalachian Mountains, from Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Chicago and Detroit. People there donned face masks, outdoor events were delayed or canceled and hospitals received an unusually high number of respiratory complaints.

“It’s not a good day to be in Columbus,” said Dr. Eric Adkins, an emergency physician at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, where complaints of sore throats, fatigue and breathing problems were higher than normal.

In New York, officials warned residents of a potential replay of the smoke crisis that gripped the state earlier this month, when the air quality index in the New York City metro area registered above 400, the worst since the Environmental Protection Agency began recording air quality measurements in 1999.


A haze could be seen over the New York City skyline.Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

In Midtown Manhattan, commuters on Thursday wore pandemic-era face masks to make their way to the office. So did costumed performers in Times Square, who strapped paper masks over their mouths before donning head covering felt masks to transform into Mickey or Minnie Mouse.

But by Thursday afternoon, much of New York had escaped the worst possible outcome, especially the densely populated region around New York City.

“They said it was going to get bad out today. But so far, it’s fine,” said Susan Lee, as she and her mother pulled weeds in her yard in Maspeth, a neighborhood in Queens that has some of the worst air quality in New York on average, according to the city’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “If the visibility goes down, sure. We’ll go in.”

Public health concerns remained, however, especially in upstate New York where, Gov. Kathy Hochul said, air quality alerts would remain in place through Friday and possibly through Fourth of July celebrations.

“It is impossible for us at this point to predict” how the wind patterns might develop, she said, adding that “air quality is unhealthy in every corner of the state of New York.”


Warnings of bad air quality did not deter residents from enjoying a sunny day in Washington Square Park in Manhattan.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

On Thursday, the air upstate was hazy in several places, including Buffalo, the state’s second largest city, and Rochester, both of which sit opposite Canada on the shores of the Great Lakes. Haze was even visible as far east as the Hudson Valley, where a dreary miasma hung over the picturesque towns north of the five boroughs.

In Canada, where fires have burned more than 13 million acres of forest, tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes. On Wednesday, Toronto, the country’s largest city, had some of the worst air quality in the world, according to IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company.

By Thursday morning, there were at least 500 wildfires burning across Canada, and more than half of them were burning out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. Canada’s wildfire season started several weeks early this year, which means the fires could continue to impact air quality across North American for several more weeks.

In Pittsburgh, the air quality was so poor on Thursday that smoke covered the tops of downtown’s skyscrapers. City pools were closed for the second day in a row, and the Pittsburgh Pirates delayed the start of their game against the San Diego Padres.

“It looks pretty gross out there,” said Maria Montaño, the mayor’s press secretary.

In Cleveland, Christopher Jen, a 23-year-old dental student, was showing relatives around town on what felt like a hot and muggy winter’s day. His guests had stopped trying to take pictures of the sights, he said, because the haze made it so hard to see anything.

Still, he said, the conditions were not as bad as he might have feared, so they vowed they would not “let the smoke get us down.” To prove their point, he and his family even went to an amusement park, he said.

“It was kind of nice because it was really smoky at Cedar Point, so no one’s out there,” he said. “We went on all the rides.”

At Ziegler Park, in Cincinnati, children splashed around at the pool on Thursday as smoky conditions persisted. The pool manager, Justin Gunn, said there had been no talk of closing.

“The only real change is the pool has to be cleaned more,” he said, adding that pool staff used a coagulant to pick up the tiny smoke particulates.

Outside the pool, under a white tent, Teylar Lockett kept an eye on the children at the summer camp she helped manage. Some parents had called to see if the camp was still being held outside, she said, but there had been no talk of canceling and no health problems reported by campers or their parents.

On Thursday afternoon, Detroit had the worst air quality in the world, according to IQAir, and Washington, D.C., was ranked second worst. Landmark buildings in the nation’s capital were shrouded in smoke throughout the afternoon.


A haze hung over the nation’s capital.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

In New York, the air quality readings were not as dire as earlier this month, when the index was between 300 and 500 in some parts of the state. But some public health risks remained.

The air quality index in Western New York hit 125 on Thursday morning, meaning it was considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, including children and people who are pregnant or have lung disease, asthma or heart disease. The air quality index reading in Central New York came in at 189, which is considered unhealthy for all groups.

“It is still appropriate for most people in the city to enjoy the outdoors today,” Jackie Bray, the commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Service, said at the news conference. “That’s not true upstate.”

Across Western New York, some people said they had been unaffected by the smoke, while others had changed their plans because of it.

Zackary Martin, 22, of Springville, N.Y., southeast of Buffalo, said he had opted not to go on a hike on his favorite trail because of the poor air quality. “It pretty much made me re-evaluate my plans for the whole week,” he said.

And at the food court of the Walden Galleria mall, in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga, Lakisha Tyson said that even though she and her two children, who are 16 and 7, did not have health conditions that affected their breathing, she had decided not to take them to the park.

“It’s not a good smell; it’s a toxic smell,” said Ms. Tyson, 39, of Rochester. “You have to wear a mask.”

Jesse McKinley, Lola Fadulu,Dan Bilefsky, Michael Wines, Lauren D’Avolio, Campbell Robertson, Carrie Blackmore Smith and Ida Lieszkovszky contributed reporting

Liam Stack is a religion correspondent on the Metro desk, covering New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He was previously a political reporter based in New York and a Middle East correspondent based in Cairo. @liamstack

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