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Climate change or hazy forest management?

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WORLD Radio - Climate change or hazy forest management?

Wildfires in Canada choke U.S. cities with smoke


Sunrise over the lower Manhattan skyline in Jersey City, N.J., June 8 Seth Wenig via The Associated Press

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 13th of June, 2023.

This is The World and Everything in It and we thank you for coming along with us today! Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Up first: Wildfires in Canada send smoke across the border.

On Wednesday, New York briefly logged its worst air quality ever, over 400 on the air quality index scale of 0 to 500. That topped air pollution in Detroit, Michigan, and Delhi, India. With air quality still near 200 on Thursday, residents posted pictures of landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge standing out in a sea of orange haze.

Over the weekend, WJI graduate Alex Carmenaty spoke with people living in nearby New Jersey to find out what their experience was like.

ALEX CARMENATY: Josiah Sherman is a high school student who works part time at Hobby Lobby in North Brunswick, which is about 40 miles southwest of New York City. He worked on Tuesday and Wednesday, when the smoke was at its worst.

JOSIAH SHERMAN: It gave everything like a pinkish orange tint. It looked kind of like it was drizzling but with no rain, just really dreary you can almost feel. It kind of smells like a campfire.

Along with businesses, school districts across New Jersey responded quickly. Anthony Scardino is a music teacher in the nearby South Brunswick School District

ANTHONY SCARDINO: They had air filtrations from the COVID times that they were able to place in people's classrooms. And so I thought our school district did a great job. But yeah, we were all looking outside as this orange haze just fell over the whole sky. We're just watching and doing the best that we can.

For many, the best way to handle the smoke was to just stay home. Forty miles from New York, Somerset resident Debbie Heath usually goes to her local church’s Wednesday night Bible Study. But this time, Heath realized she needed to play hooky.

DEBBIE HEATH: My landlord's a DoorDash driver. I got a text from him telling me to stay inside because it's really bad out. He was Door Dashing for maybe three hours and he started getting a headache and its eyes were watering and he was having trouble breathing and his chest hurt and he had dry heaves. And so he said I had to come home.

Heath described last week in one word.

HEATH: Frightening, because you really didn't know what was going on you didn't know how long it would last you didn't know how safe it was to go outside without any kind of protection and yeah it was frightening.

Across America, 18 states had a rapid decline in air quality. The Garden State was one of them.

Reporting For WORLD, I’m Alex Carmenaty in North Brunswick, New Jersey.

REICHARD: Frightening as it was for Americans dealing with smokey skies, Canadians are dealing with the actual fires. And for many residents in the Eastern part of the country, it’s a new experience. WORLD Associate Correspondent Alexandra Ellison explains.

ALEXANDRA ELLISON: So in Western Canada, we are pretty accustomed to having wildfires, due to our dry summers. But in places such as Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, this year, we have seen drier conditions, because usually the season is not as bad because they have that cooler climate, which is influenced by the North Atlantic Ocean. But this year the lack of rainfall and the temperatures, higher temperatures have created these conditions for the wildfires to grow.

BROWN: Many Canadians are concerned that these conditions aren’t anomalies but indicators of a concerning global trend. Here’s Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Parliament on Wednesday.

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Forest fires are raging. It's the worst year on record for forest fires already. But the fact is they are going to get worse in the coming years because climate change is real. And yet the Conservative Party continues to stand against the climate action that we've been taking.

REICHARD: While rising temperatures may be a factor in Canada’s vulnerability to wildfires this year, the immediate causes may actually be much more concrete. Data from Natural Resources Canada reveals that Canada has allocated over $1 billion for wildfire protections in six out of the past ten years. However, forestry management reports since 2017 indicate that the department has cut down on its use of an essential firefighting technique…controlled burns. Dead undergrowth and trees tend to build up over time if not dealt with, and so forest management departments have traditionally set small fires to clean out fire hazards and prevent larger burns down the road. But that hasn’t been happening in Canada.

ELLISON: This year, Parks Canada scheduled only 23 prescribed forest burns to offset large blazes. And in comparison in the US, they did about 800,000 prescribed burns between 2017 and 2019. So that potentially could be contributing to the severity of this year's wildfires.

BROWN: So what caused these fires? Natural Resources Canada says the majority of them were likely caused by lightning strikes. But some also had human origins, like unattended campfires, or even mischief.

ELLISON: So since May, there's actually been multiple arsonists that have been arrested across provinces in Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Alberta. And due to this uncertainty of the fires origins, Alberta's United Conservative Party Premier, Daniel Smith has actually called for an independent investigation as suspicion for arsonists.

In the meantime, firefighters continue to battle nearly 450 fires across Canada. Many of them are in western provinces but almost 200 are in the midwest provinces of Ontario and Quebec. And just over half of them are under control or being held in check. South of the border, skies are clearer in the U.S. going into Tuesday, but air quality will remain a concern until the end of the fire season later this summer.

REICHARD: And explanations for the wildfires’ origins and how to prevent similar fires in the future remain hazy.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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