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Wildfires in US West ruin East Coast air quality

July 21, 2021

An earlier than usual start to the wildfire season comes after extreme heat affected the region. Unhealthy air quality has been recorded as far away as New York City.

New York City blanketed by haze
Wildfires burning out of control across the Western United States cause hazy skies in New York CityImage: Lokman Vural Elibol/AA/picture alliance / AA

America's West is on fire with wildfires ravishing across 13 states, spewing massive amounts of smoke and ash that's adversely affecting air quality as far away as New York City.

The largest wildfire at present is in the western state of Oregon. Dubbed the Bootleg Fire, it grew to 606 square miles (1,569 square kilometers) Tuesday. Pushed by winds over dry lands, the fire in the southern part of the state has been advancing by up to 4 miles daily.

The Bootleg Fire in Oregon
Dubbed the Bootleg Fire, the wildfire in Oregon grew to 606 square miles (1,569 kilometers) TuesdayImage: Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Elsewhere out west, a fire has enveloped the Sierra Nevadas in California from both sides. In Alpine County, the Tamarack Fire has caused evacuations in a few communities across 61 square miles with no containment.

Meanwhile, the Dixie Fire near the site of the 2018 Paradise Fire has consumed 90 square miles, threatening small communities along the Feather River Valley.

Fire haze polluting major cities

The impact on air quality can be felt even on the East Coast of the United States where major cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston have all recorded catastrophic air quality index levels.

David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told the AP: "By the time that smoke gets to the eastern portion of the country where it's usually thinned out, there's just so much smoke in the atmosphere from all these fires that it's still pretty thick."

A photo taken by drone provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command shows a pyrocumulus cloud, also known as a fire cloud, over Oregon last week
Smoke and heat from a massive wildfire in southeastern Oregon are creating "fire clouds" over the blaze — dangerous columns of smoke and ash that can reach up to 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) and are visible for more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) awayImage: Bootleg Fire Incident Command/AP Photo/picture alliance

He said the phenomenon, induced by climate change, is but a few years old. The effects of the air contamination can be felt on the eyes, nose and lungs.

In New York, where the skyline was obscured by grayish haze, the air quality index soared to 170, nine times the recommended exposure to fine particles, according to the World Health Organization. Philadelphia logged 172 and Boston was above 150.

Margaret Key, a federal air resource adviser, told Reuters by email that such exposure "increases susceptibility to respiratory infections including COVID, increases severity of such infections and makes recovery more difficult."

ar/sri (AP, Reuters)