Schools across the US East Coast canceled outdoor activities, commercial airline traffic was slowed and millions of Americans were urged to stay indoors on Wednesday as smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south, blanketing cities in a thick yellowish haze.
The US National Weather Service issued air quality alerts for virtually the entire Atlantic seaboard. Health from Vermont to South Carolina and as far west as Ohio and Kansas warned residents that spending time outdoors could cause respiratory problems due to high levels of fine particulates in the atmosphere.
“It’s critical that Americans experiencing dangerous air pollution, especially those with health conditions, listen to local authorities to protect themselves and their families,” US President Joe Biden said on Twitter.
US private forecasting service AccuWeather said thick haze and soot extending from high elevations to ground level marked the worst outbreak of wildfire smoke to blanket the Northeastern US in more than 20 years.
New York’s world-famous skyline, usually visible for miles, appeared to vanish underneath the otherworldly veil of smoke, which some residents said made them feel unwell.
“It makes breathing difficult,” Mohammed Abass said as he walked down Broadway in Manhattan. “I’ve been scheduled for a road test for driving, for my driving license today, and it was canceled.”
The smoky air was especially tough on people toiling outdoors, such as Chris Ricciardi, owner of Neighbor’s Envy Landscaping in Roxbury, New Jersey. He said he and his crew were curtailing work hours and wearing face masks they had previously donned when pollen was heavy.
“We don’t have the luxury to stop working,” he said. “We want to keep our exposure to the smoke to a minimum, but what can you really do about it?”
New York Governor Kathy Hochul called the situation an “emergency crisis,” noting that the air pollution index for parts of her state were eight times above normal.
Reduced visibility from the haze forced the Federal Aviation Administration to slow air traffic into the New York City area and Philadelphia from elsewhere on the East Coast and upper Midwest, with flight delays averaging about a half hour.
Schools up and down the East Coast called off outdoor activities, including sports practices, field trips and recesses, to protect students.
In Bethesda, Maryland, a high school moved its graduation ceremony indoors, while a Brooklyn, New York, elementary school postponed its “Spring Fling” party. A school in Montclair, New Jersey, called off a fifth-grade trip to an amusement park.