Picture: Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS/June 7, 2023 – People wear protective masks as the Roosevelt Island Tram crosses the East River while haze and smoke from the Canadian wildfires shroud the Manhattan skyline.
By Robert Wilson
Before this week, it was easy for those of us in the East to think that suffocating wildfire smoke was solely a West Coast problem. But no longer.
One morning in May 1934, residents in the East woke up to find part of Kansas drifting over their cities. Until then “the black blizzards” of dust that had ravaged the Great Plains seemed like a far-off problem. But now as the gloom and haze darkened the skies over Washington and New York, the reality of the Dust Bowl was now clear for everyone in the East to see and breathe.
The thick smoke and apocalyptic orange skies that enveloped Boston, Washington, and New York this week were reminiscent of the dark days of the Dust Bowl. Like the dust storms of the 1930s, the smoke seemed the harbinger of worse things to come.
The sight of smoke-filled cities has become more common in recent years, but in the West, not the East. In September 2020, a hellish red hue engulfed San Francisco, the result of massive wildfires in Northern California. Images and videos of the fire immediately drew comparisons to urban scenes from the dystopian movie, Blade Runner. That year, according to Stanford researchers, polluted air from the fires caused thousands of excess deaths in California cities alone.
The fires in Quebec show that the consequences of climate change, in this case, its effects on the boreal forests, won’t remain in remote regions north of the international border.
Over the past decade, the size of fires and length of fire season has increased dramatically in the West. It has become a routine occurrence for towns and suburbs to be consumed by blazes. Neighbourhoods in Superior, Colorado, and almost the entire town of Paradise, California, were vaporized in a matter of hours. In Northern California, the August Complex Fiire burned for more than 1 million acres, earning the classification of the world’s first “gigafire.”
Yet the threat of burning is not the only threat from fires. Western cities must now contend with wildfire smoke, often from blazes hundreds of miles away from cities. Some scientists predicted the health effects of the 2020 Western wildfires would linger long after they were extinguished, from California to Oregon and Washington. One study showed that most asthma-related deaths sparked by wildfire smoke are reported “outside the West” of the country.
Of course, cities in the East have had to grapple with their share of environmental calamities, many of them worsened by climate change. Superstorm Sandy inundated New York City’s subways and damaged countless homes and businesses. More recently, torrential rains in the fall of 2021 turned city streets into rivers and even drowned a few people in their flooded basement apartments.
Some cities and states in the Northeast have begun to bill themselves as climate havens. With sea level a persistent and growing threat along the East Coast and Gulf Coast and wildfires and drought menacing communities in the West, parts of the East, such as upstate New York and Vermont, look like enticing refuges in a climate-change world.
Yet the fires in Quebec show that the consequences of climate change, in this case, its effects on the boreal forests, won’t remain in remote regions north of the international border. Millions of acres of trees have burned throughout Canada this year, and it is only early June. As climate change continues unabated, the fires in these regions and the voluminous smoke they produce will only grow.
Before this week, it was easy for those of us in the East to think that suffocating wildfire smoke was solely a West Coast problem. But no longer. The smoke clouding our skies, scratching our throats and watering our eyes shows we’re all Westerners now.
Robert Wilson is an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs where he teaches courses in historical geography, environmental history, and environmental politics. In 2010, the University of Washington Press published his book, ‘Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway’ in its Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series edited by William Cronon.