Unusually hot and dry conditions are fueling an early and intense wildfire season in Canada and blanketing the U.S. in a toxic haze. Last week, the smoke resulted in days of poor air quality for Indianapolis and the worst air quality in decades for other parts of the United States, experts say. While the smoke has not reached the same hazardous levels, more than half the fires remain out of control and more smoke continues to roll in.

The National Weather Service warned on Tuesday that smoke is already working its way back into the area and hazy skies were expected to return to Indianapolis and the Michigan Peninsula by midweek.

An atypical wind pattern last week is what brought smoke into the eastern United States, National Weather Service Meteorologist Bob Oravec said. Fires burning in the northeast produced a thick haze that blew much lower to the surface, triggering the air quality alerts for a portion of the United States.

An atypical wind pattern last week is what brought smoke into the eastern United States. The combination of weather patterns fanned the flames and funneled them south to the U.S. (Provided/National Weather Service)

“This spring, we’ve had a lot of weather patterns that are more conducive to cooler air coming down from Canada,” Oravec said. “So along with the cool air, it’s been bringing the smoke also.”

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, he 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.”

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

More than 450 wildfires were still active from coast to coast as of June 13, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, a slight increase from 417 active fires tracked in Canada on Friday. Just 125 fires are considered under control, while another 93 are “being held,” meaning a fire is neither under control nor moving, and its status can fluctuate. 

Wildfire smoke is a health concern 

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.

A persistent problem

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 will arrive soon to help as well.

Quebec’s fire prevention agency, where the smoke spurred from, has warned residents that it is giving priority to residential areas and critical infrastructure as more fires burn out of control than the agency can handle. Officials have asked for help from Canadian Armed Forces and international aid to help fight the fires. President Joe Biden announced in a tweet that 600 American firefighters and equipment will head to Canada 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.

Contact staff writer Jayden Kennett at 317-762-7847 or by email jaydenk@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @JournoJay.