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Hazed and confused: Canadian wildfires prompt poor air quality

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Smoke from Canada’s wildfires are clouding Indianapolis skies, causing poor air quality for Hoosiers and canceling outdoor events across Marion County.  The Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued a statewide Air Quality Action Day on Wednesday June 28. Another action day is forecasted for tomorrow, as smoke continues to blow south. 

Some organizations, including Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and Indy Parks & Rec, are canceling outdoor events due to unhealthy levels of air pollutants.  

The city issued a Knozone Action Day across Marion County and is urging residents to take precautions by wearing masks and staying indoors whenever possible.  

“The City of Indianapolis is closely monitoring and taking precautions as we’re experiencing unhealthy Air Quality Index levels,” Mayor Joe Hogsett said. “It is crucial for residents to prioritize their health and safety. I urge all community members to stay informed about the air quality and take the necessary precautions to keep you and your loved ones safe.”  

With above-average fire activity predicted for the summer, the United States could see a summer of smoke, as pollutants are carried wherever the wind blows, National Weather Service Meteorologist Bob Oravec said.  

“If there’s a continual source of smoke, depending upon which way the wind blows, there’s definitely potential as we go into the summer months that the smoke will continue to affect some parts of the country,” Oravec said.  

Currently, an area spanning half the size of Indiana and larger than the state of Maryland has already been scorched in Canada this year.   

Wildfire smoke is a health concern  

poor air quality in Indiana
Downtown Indianapolis amidst a poor air quality day due to Canadian wildfires. (Photo/Jayden Kennett)

More than 480 wildfires were still active from coast to coast as of June 28, with nearly half of them still out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. Just 152 fires are considered under control, while another 89 are “being held,” meaning a fire is neither under control nor moving and its status can fluctuate.  

Individuals with cardiovascular or respiratory disease, older adults, children under 18 years of age, pregnant women, outdoor workers and people of lower socioeconomic status are at a greater risk of health effects from wildfire smoke.  

People of color bear a disproportionate burden of asthma and other respiratory diseases, putting them at an increased risk of health effects from wildfire smoke, according to the EPA. 

Particle pollution is a main component of wildfire smoke’s complex mixture of pollutants. Particle pollution, or particulate matter, can be made up of different components and is 30 times smaller than the average human hair. During a wildfire, concentrations of particles can increase in size to the point that the pollution is visible to the naked eye, like the orange haze over New York.  

Exposure to high levels of fine particulates in wildfire smoke is known to be harmful. 

Particles can burrow deep into lung tissue and lead to a variety of health effects when inhaled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Exposure to high concentrations of fine particles increases risks of medical complications for sensitive groups. Even short-term exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to reduced lung function, heart failure, stroke and more, according to the EPA. 

Poor air quality is a persistent problem

poor air quality in Indianapolis
Citizens outside during a poor air quality day in Indianapolis. (Photo/Jayden Kennett)

Canada is on track to have the worst wildfire season on record with above-normal fire activity predicted until September, the Canadian government said in an updated outlook on the country’s wildfire season.  

This year’s season is already “severe,” officials said in the update, warning that ongoing drought and a long-range forecast for warm temperatures indicate a potential for above-normal fire activity.  

Canada has already committed all its national resources to fight wildfires across the country and international aid has been deployed to help.  

The smoky air is a stark reminder that the climate crisis is harming communities everywhere, environmental activist Maya van Rossum said.  

“Those who feel they are not impacted by the climate crisis are forced to reconsider as the smoky air drives them indoors in order to protect their own health or every time they experience or read in the news about the next big flood, drought or wildfire,” Rossum said.  

NOAA will continue to monitor smoke conditions and issue air quality alerts as needed.  

View the smoke map in real time here

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