Is living with wildfire smoke the new normal?

Unhealthy air caused by blazes across Canada has once again blanketed much of the U.S.

Highrises in Manhattan, shrouded in an orange haze.
An orange haze caused by wildfires in Canada blankets New York City on June 7. (AP Photo/Andy Bao)

Over 120 million people — more than a third of the U.S. population — found themselves under air quality alerts on Thursday as massive clouds of smoke from Canadian wildfires spread across a dozen states, just weeks after blanketing the Northeast in an apocalyptic orange haze.

Residents of Chicago woke up Tuesday morning to the worst air quality in the world, with hazy skies and the smell of smoke — just as people in New York City did earlier this month.

So is this the new normal? Given the changing climate and Canada’s wooded landscape, a growing number of experts say it may be.

“As long as those fires keep burning up there, that’s going to be a problem for us,” Greg Carbin, forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center, told the Associated Press.

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, 501 active fires are in progress, with more than half of them, 254, considered to be burning out of control.

How much has burned?

A jagged line of fire and smoke burns pine trees on a ridge in the distance.
A wildfire burning near Mistissini, Quebec, on June 12. (Marc-André Leclerc/Canadian Forces/Handout via Reuters)

A record 30,000 square miles, or 17.7 million acres, have burned in Canada so far this year.

The amount of smoke emitted is also a new record. About 160 megatons of carbon emissions have been released, the highest annual total estimated for Canada since such recordkeeping began in 2003. The plumes of smoke have even reached Europe.

Wildfire season in Canada usually peaks around mid-July. This year, hundreds of blazes were already burning by May, as hotter and drier air made conditions ripe for wildfires.

Read more about the wildfire smoke on Yahoo News

As Mike Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake, British Columbia, explained to the AP, warmer weather attributable to climate change means the atmosphere sucks more moisture out of plants, making them much more likely to catch fire — and burn faster and hotter.

And forecasters predict the rest of the summer in Canada will stay hot and mostly dry. “It’s been a crazy year,” Flannigan said. “And I’m not sure where it’s going to end.”

What are the health risks?

A bicyclist passes along the shore, with high-rises dimly visible across the lake.
A bicyclist rides along the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

Exposure to wildfire smoke can be harmful to human health, causing symptoms ranging from eye and respiratory tract irritation to asthma attacks and heart failure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But there are several things you can do to help mitigate your exposure.

• Keep an eye on the AQI: The Air Quality Index, or AQI, is a color-coded numerical scale that helps people understand the health risks and exposures to airborne pollutants at any given time. It measures the presence of five major pollutants and calculates a scale from 0 to 500. You can search for your ZIP code specifically.

Smoke can move quickly, depending on wind patterns, so when there’s smoke in your area, you may want to check a few times throughout the day, especially before planning any strenuous outdoor activities.

"That's our new normal now," Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer, told the Canadian Press.

• Keep your indoor air clean: During wildfire smoke events, you also need to keep the indoor air clean, which means closing windows and, if necessary, using an air-filtration system or single-room air purifier. Experts also advise running an air conditioner with the air recirculating within the house, rather than bringing in air from outside.

"Air purifiers with a HEPA [or high efficiency particulate air] filter draw in the smoke, trap the particles and blow out clean air," Dr. Raymond Casciari, a pulmonologist at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., told Yahoo Life.

• Mask up outside: If you do go outside when the air is deemed unhealthy, experts encourage you to wear a mask, especially if you’ll be outdoors for a prolonged period. The same masks that work best at reducing your risk of getting COVID-19 offer the most protection against smoke.

“You want to think of the two Fs — filtration and fit. When it comes to filtration, you want a high-grade mask, whether it’s an N95 or a KF94,” Joseph Allen, associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Health. “You want that mask snug on your face, so that all the air you’re breathing is forced to go through the filter of the mask.”