Wildfire smoke hits New York again: ‘We are truly the first generation to feel the real effects of climate change,’ Gov. Hochul says

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Smoke from the wildfires burning in Canada is blowing south and causing dangerous air quality in New York state for the second time in a month.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul tweeted Wednesday afternoon that air quality health advisories were in effect for the state.

“Similar to what we saw a short time ago, the air quality is deteriorating very quickly in our state as a result of the Canadian wildfires,” Hochul said in a press conference Tuesday. “That’s the unfortunate news that we’re experiencing. I would certainly say we did not deal with this in the years past. If you want to know the effects of climate change, you’re going to feel it tomorrow in real time.”

“This is not something that we’re talking about future generations dealing with,” Hochul said. “We are truly the first generation to feel the real effects of climate change.”

City administrators will be working to alert residents of the hazardous air conditions on public transit and via cell phone alert systems. But Hochul advised residents to look up their zip codes on AirNow.gov for localized air quality readings. The fire and smoke map available on AirNow is a collaboration between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service.

New York administrators issued an air quality health advisory Wednesday for Western New York, Central New York and Eastern Lake Ontario regions, adding that the smoke is due to move east Thursday.

Air quality levels are expected to deteriorate from “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” to “Unhealthy” and for brief periods may even breach the threshold for “Very Unhealthy” or “Hazardous,” according to Hochul’s office. High-risk populations who are especially vulnerable to poor air quality include children, senior citizens, pregnant women and people with heart disease and respiratory issues, Hochul said Tuesday.

The New York State Department of Health recommends people limit “strenuous” outdoor activity to reduce the risk of negative health impacts, New York State Health Commissioner James McDonald said in a written statement.

“People who are especially sensitive to elevated levels of pollutants, including the very young and those with pre-existing respiratory problems such as heart disease or asthma, should avoid spending time outdoors if possible,” McDonald said. “Monitor the levels in your area with AirNow.gov, or the weather app on your phone, and if you must go outdoors, consider wearing an N95 mask. Those who experience symptoms, or have symptoms that worsen, should consider consulting their personal physician.”

A detailed breakdown of what air quality level means for different groups is available here.

Masks will be distributed at Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station, Fulton Center, Jamaica Station, the main concourse of Port Authority Bus Terminal in the South Wing, Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Grand Concourse in the Bronx, Shirley Chisholm State Park, Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve, Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park and Roberto Clemente State Park, according to Hochul’s office.  

Since many kids are currently at summer camps, it’s important that camp counselors be informed, Hochul said.

It’s also important for outdoor workers to be aware and protected, she said.

Smoke has already hit midwestern cities, including Chicago and Detroit.

“Obviously something that was unprecedented a couple of weeks ago is now becoming the norm,” Hochul said.

Wildfires do occur naturally, but climate change can cause hotter, drier conditions that can exacerbate wildfires, research has shown. A 2018 study on Canada wildfires suggested that “human-induced climate change contributed greatly to the probability of the observed extreme warm temperatures, high wildfire risk, and large burned areas.” A 2023 study arrived at similar results for California wildfires: “Our results indicate that nearly all the observed increase in burned area is due to anthropogenic climate change.”

Robert Field, an associate research scientist who works at NASA and Columbia University, told CNBC that the impact of climate change on wildfires is more clear for California than for Canada right now. However, he added, Canada has already seen more land burn than it has in several decades.

“The 7.5 million hectares burned in Canada this year are now the highest since the early ’80s, and there’s still plenty of fire season left,” Field told CNBC. “The fire weather out west and in Quebec has been exceptionally high for this time of year. However, the climate change ‘fingerprints’ on Canadian wildfires are harder to see compared to, say, the western U.S., where they’re clear.”

Steve Pyne, a historian with a special focus on fire and author of “The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next,” also notes that Canada wildfires have been serious before.

“Canadian smoke has affected the U.S. before, the most famous episode being the Chinchaga fire in 1950,” Pyne told CNBC. “Canada’s forests can burn on a big scale: The current fires in Quebec have just passed the previous recorded burn area, for Quebec, in 1923.”

Canada’s timber industry also influences wildfires, Pyne said.

“The tempo, the scale and the character of recurring fire seasons that have characterized the scene over the past 20 years are best explained by climate change acting on the boreal forest, which also integrates Canada’s timber industry,” Pyne told CNBC. “Post-logging slash and early-stage planted forests are particularly vulnerable to wildfires.”

But, Pyne has observed, climate change is “a performance enhancer,” he told CNBC.

“Climate change seems to be amplifying Canada’s historic patterns and stressing the agencies designed for a different time,” Pyne told CNBC. “The current season is not unprecedented, but it is historic and may become epic thanks to the impact of smoke, which projects the impact of fires otherwise burning in remote hinterlands to urban centers.”

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