Canadian state officials warn that this is possibly the worst wildfire season on record in the North American country.
Such is the magnitude of these fires that the smoke has covered a large area of eastern North America and is wreaking havoc in cities such as New York.
The fires started in the Canadian province of Quebec at the beginning of June, as a result of the dry and warm weather, as well as several lightning strikes; their spread was rapid. From an initial 36 fires, they grew to more than 100 after a thunderstorm on June 1.
It is usual for fires to occur at this time of year, but this time they are becoming more intense and extensive. “In three days, everything went wrong,” said Phiplippe Bergeron of the Quebec firefighting agency.
Nearly four million hectares of land have burned so far in the country, 12 times above the 10-year average for this season.
“That’s the equivalent of almost 10 million soccer fields,” Canada’s emergency preparedness minister, Bill Blair, tells the BBC’s Newshour program.
Firefighters from France and the United States have had to be called in to help with the firefighting effort because, with so much fire, local firefighting resources have been exhausted.
In the case of Quebec, the fires decreased this week from 150 to just over 130. But according to Bergeron, the problem is that they are merging with each other and becoming larger.
Quebec has never experienced wildfires of this magnitude, which occur more typically in parts of western Canada, such as Alberta and British Columbia.
Just over 20,000 people have had to be evacuated from their homes across the country, 15,000 of them in Quebec.
The situation remains worrying in several regions, explained Stephane Caron, of the Society for the Protection of Forests against Fire, SOPFEU in its French acronym.
“We are only at the beginning of this fire season. We are now entering the period when there are usually larger fires in Quebec,” he says.
The risk of a new outbreak is described as “extreme” by authorities in the western part of this province.
This natural phenomenon has prompted calls among politicians for the creation of a national fire department. Canada generally relies on each province to share resources or help from nearby U.S. states.
“When those resources are depleted, provinces ask for military support from the federal government as well as other countries for international assistance,” says Brian Wiens, managing director of Canada Wildfire, an organization that researches wildfire management in partnership with provincial firefighting agencies.
Provinces battling their own fires, therefore, are currently too strained to share resources.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that his government is considering creating some sort of national disaster response agency.
Despite the more than 800 kilometers that separate Quebec, Canada, from New York, in the United States. But the effects of the fires were felt in the skies over the Big Apple. An orange haze blanketed the city’s skyline and obscured landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty.
Public health officials have called on citizens to avoid exercising outdoors and to minimize their exposure to smoke as much as possible, as the air poses immediate and long-term health risks.
Experts say exposure to smoke can cause a number of health problems, including increased heart rate, increased breathing, chest pain and inflammation in the eyes, nose and throat.
“We are seeing an increased number of asthma-related visits to emergency rooms,” a New York health department spokesman tells AFP.
Health officials have distributed face masks, both at train stations, buses and parks, and public schools have been asked to switch to remote teaching mode, during the emergency.
Not surprisingly, the city reached “Code Brown”, the highest category of the Air Quality Index (AQI), which indicates conditions hazardous to health. The index even surpassed the most polluted cities in the world.
About 111 million people in the United States are under an air quality alert because of the fires, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last week.
Published by Emirates Herald, news and information agency.