A series of early season wildfires in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia are spreading smoke across the northeast. News outlets from Massachusetts to southeast Pennsylvania report that residents can smell smoke and see it in the sky, and experts warn that reduced air quality poses health risks for residents.
There are a total of 14 fires in Nova Scotia, the largest of which, covering 43,095 acres, is the “largest wildfire in recorded history,” according to the provincial government. The fires have destroyed 200 homes and prompted evacuation orders for 16,000 residents, and they are now threatening to spread to Halifax, the provincial capital.
Residents of neighboring New Brunswick also had to evacuate 400 homes. The province saw 15 “unprecedented” fires break out on Saturday, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said earlier this week.
“It’s really heartbreaking, there’s really a lot of helplessness,” Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said Wednesday at a news conference.
Effects in the United States
Due to winds pushing the smoke south and west, National Weather Service air quality alerts have increased in southern Michigan and Wisconsin, northern Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania , New Jersey and New York.
Massachusetts, particularly in the Boston area, experienced cloudy skies on Wednesday due to wildfires. That day, and again Thursday, the National Weather Service issued a Code Orange air quality alert for Philadelphia and its suburbs. Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said Tuesday that air quality would be unhealthy for sensitive groups, and a similar report was released that day for the state of Massachusetts. .
“The health effects of exposure to particulate pollution can range from relatively minor (e.g. eye and respiratory tract irritation) to more serious health effects (e.g. exacerbation of asthma and heart failure, and premature death),” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The role of climate change
It’s unusual to see such wildfire activity before the start of summer in Nova Scotia’s generally cold and wet climate, but rising temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions make spring warmer and intensifies dry spells.
Nova Scotia had below average snowfall last winter and April received less than half of its average precipitation for that month, making it the driest April on record. .
“What’s unique about this situation is the time of year – the fact that it’s happening in May and it’s spreading so quickly,” said Anthony Farnell, chief meteorologist at Canadian news outlet Global. News.
“Climate change is contributing to volatility,” Halifax Fire Deputy Chief Dave Meldrum said at a Monday news conference.
The risk of early season wildfires is expected to increase in the future as climate change continues.
“Canada as a whole has warmed, including eastern Canada, and we expect more warming in the future. So, yes, warming would be expected to increase fires in eastern Canada as well,” Nathan Gillett, a researcher at Environment and Climate Change Canada, a department of the Canadian federal government, told Global News.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has urged governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and 60% by 2035 to limit the extent of global warming.
Nova Scotia Forest Protection Officer Scott Tingley said most of the fires were “very likely human-caused.”
“Much of it is probably avoidable,” he said.
Dry and windy weather in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick this week fueled the fires. The possibility of rain arriving on Friday evening gives residents hope for help, but experts have warned that lightning from thunderstorms can actually make matters worse by sparking more fires when they hit parched trees.
Nova Scotia has banned activity in forested areas, with particular concern for any type of burning.