‘Never experienced anything like this’: readers on Canada wildfires smoke and air pollution

<span>Photograph: Alberta Wildfire Handout/EPA</span>
Photograph: Alberta Wildfire Handout/EPA

Hundreds of fires are burning in Canada, from the western provinces to Nova Scotia and Quebec in the east, where there are more than 150 active fires.

Smoke from the wildfires in Canada has been moving south into the US since May and is affecting tens of millions of people in the north-east, but also the midwest and as far down as the Carolinas.

New York briefly had the worst air quality of any big city in the world on Wednesday, according to IQAir, and toxic air quality alerts continued on Thursday.

Readers in Canada and the US have got in touch to describe how they have been affected from the smell of smoke to breathing particles in the air.

‘There’s a lot of gunk in the air’

I live right on the border with Ontario. The fires are in an adjoining county, Pontiac county. We were told to stay indoors and keep the windows closed, and if you must go out, be very careful and not exert yourself. This is a first in this area; I’ve lived here for 29 years. My general feeling is that this is going to be the new normal actually. They say that wildfires are increasing throughout the whole world. And this is just one aspect of it. This has brought it home to us.

Blue has returned to the sky but for the past few days, it’s been like pure grey, a slate grey, and extremely depressing. And there’s a lot of gunk in the air. I was wearing my mask outside. David Mills, Gatineau, Quebec, Canada

Burning vegetation in Alberta, Canada.
Burning vegetation in Alberta, Canada. Photograph: Alberta Wildfire Handout/EPA

‘Bird life has been very subdued’

There’s a sense of being trapped. I am an outdoor person normally, and the air was too thick even with a mask yesterday. We’ve shut the windows, but even indoors everyone’s breathing is affected to some degree. Today I’m wearing a mask outside, but it isn’t enough to block the smoke.

The bird life has been very subdued. Yesterday they still made a valiant effort to sing, but today they couldn’t even manage a dawn chorus. The evidence of what they have to breathe is evident in the fine ash coating the exterior of the car like dust.

We had a thunderstorm last night, but it didn’t clear the air; the only effect was that the air smelt of wet smoke instead of dry for a while. We can’t see the sun rise or set. During the rest of the day it’s a dim fuchsia colour in a yellow-grey sky.

I’ve been to really polluted places in Mexico and in South America, but this is on a whole new level. Ironically, our government is barely discussing the climate crisis. Jennie, teacher, Lansdowne, Ontario, Canada


‘Student health is being monitored ’

The city of Barrie is approximately 100km north of Toronto. The school in which I teach is one of 116 in the Simcoe county district school board, an overall area covering approximately 4,800 sq km. Staff are being advised in all the schools to avoid any kind of strenuous outdoor sports or activities, competitive games between schools are being cancelled, student health is being monitored closely, and we are told that tomorrow will be much worse.

On a personal note there is a constant smell of smoke in the air and the sky remains hazy all the time due to the particles in the air. If one didn’t know better one would think that the fires are very close, despite being hundreds of kilometres away. Nicholas, 54, teacher, Barrie, Ontario, Canada

A person wearing a protective face mask walks past the skyline in Philadelphia.
A person wearing a protective face mask walks past the skyline in Philadelphia. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP

‘We are back to wearing masks’

I live in Ottawa. We have been experiencing heavy smoke for several days. I have a cottage in the Laurentians, two hours from Ottawa. There have been several small fires still contained there as well. School children are not allowed outside for recess. Even dog walking is being curtailed. We are back to wearing masks.

I have a friend that lives in Nova Scotia just moved to a place pretty much in the wilderness and she was on the border of the fires last week and almost had to be evacuated and nothing’s ever happened in Nova Scotia as far as I can remember.

Occasionally we do see smoke from fires, maybe two summers ago as well. But nothing like this. Dianne, retired magazine publisher, Ottawa

The Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan in New York City shortly after sunrise on 8 June 2023.
The Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan in New York City shortly after sunrise on 8 June 2023. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

‘I’m doing work calls bathed in radioactive orange light’

I’m doing work calls, bathed in radioactive orange light, watching the smoke slowly blot out the sky, wearing a face mask alone inside my home because the air isn’t safe because the planet is on fire. Half of my brain is trying to work and half of my brain is trying to decide if sealing the windows with duct tape is an overreaction.

My apartment is drafty and the smoke smell is so strong I’m wearing a mask inside. It reminds me of right before lockdown – should we go to work, should we wear a mask.

At the beginning of the pandemic it was impolite to start calls or end emails without declaring your hope that everyone is well or safe or whatever. For the next few days I guess I should express hope that everyone is breathing OK before getting work out of them. Amanda, Queens, New York City

‘I have never experienced anything like this’

I’ve lived in Ithaca for almost 50 years and I have never experienced anything like this. My usual view, right across the valley to Cornell University’s towers, is obscured with thick yellow fog. Birds and squirrels seem unaffected, but I smell woodsmoke when I step out and it makes my eyes tear, and my throat scratchy. We have been told to stay inside.

June is so lovely here, cool and green, so it’s really hard to miss being out walking. but I really feel for the Canadian people not too far north of me. Peggy, 79, retired, Ithaca, New York

A cyclist rides under a blanket of haze partially obscuring the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
A cyclist rides under a blanket of haze partially obscuring the US Capitol in Washington. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

‘It was like someone had an out-of-control barbecue’

On Wednesday, it was like someone on our street had an out-of-control barbecue. As you’re walking down the street, you could see smoke.

Everyone is coughing. It’s not like a Covid cough; it’s like every few seconds you have another cough in the back of your throat. I checked the air quality in Detroit and it’s 171, whatever that means. I don’t really know what the numbers mean because we never talked about them before.

What’s really worrying me about this is my parents are quite elderly and my dad has emphysema, so I’m trying to get them to wear masks when they go out.

I was happy to hear the United States is sending more firefighters to Canada to help them. But I don’t know how much they can do. It hasn’t really affected us in the Midwest before – I’ve lived here my entire life.

It’s very scary and I’m afraid this is going to happen again. Sandra, 55, Detroit, Michigan