There are currently 70 wildfires burning more than one million acres across the U.S., according to the most recent figures from the National Interagency Fire Center.
While the bulk of the fires themselves are burning in the West, the smoke is projected to fill skies across the entire country, reaching as far east as New York.
“It’s becoming an unfortunate new feature of New York City’s summer weather — wildfire smoke from the West Coast billowing east, adding to the haze here,” NBC4 New York reported Friday.
Every state in the nation is expected to experience at least light, surface level smoke with the exception of the Four Corners states and the coastal Southeast, CNN reported. This is because the smoke is being lifted high enough into the atmosphere to reach the upper air masses, which push it east.
However, the states seeing the biggest impact from the smoke are still the states closer to the fires themselves. Minnesota and North Dakota are experiencing unhealthy air as fire smoke from Canada moved across the border Thursday into Friday. Air quality alerts are also in place in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado, in addition to Minnesota.
The smoke is so dense it can be seen from space, as Space.com reported. The largest fire is the Bootleg Fire in Oregon, which has burned 241,497 acres and is only seven percent contained, according to the most recent update from InciWeb. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been monitoring the massive fire and its smoke with its GOES-17 satellite.
Wildfire smoke is a problem because it contributes to air pollution.
“The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explained. “These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.”
There is even evidence that wildfire smoke can help spread COVID-19. A study published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology Tuesday found a 17.7 percent increase in coronavirus cases in Reno, Nevada during the period when the city was most exposed to wildfire smoke from Aug. 16 to Oct. 10 of 2020.
That makes wildfire smoke another example of how the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis compound each other. Climate change makes fires in the West more frequent, bigger, faster and more severe, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“Climate affects how long, how hot and how dry fire seasons are,” Natasha Stavros, who studies wildfires as an applied science system engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained. “As climate warms, we’re seeing a long-term drying and warming of both air and vegetation.”
2020 was a record-breaking season for fires in the West, but 2021 has already surpassed it, helped along by historic heat wave and drought conditions.
So far this year, there have been 6,271 more wildfires than in 2020 that have burned 511,427 more acres, CNN reported.
And states in the region don’t expect relief any time soon.
“We are looking at a couple of months at least with wildfire smoke in areas,” Idaho Department of Environmental Quality regional airshed coordinator Mike Toole told KTVB7. “Long term, I think we are going to see the smoke through the summer and into the fall.”
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