U.S. East Coast can look west for smoke management help

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As regions of the United States not typically prone to smoky skies confront the anomaly, some municipalities have started to look west for answers.

Why it matters: Wildfire seasons are getting longer, and the Canadian smoke event that captivated the East Coast earlier this year will remain a problem for the U.S. in years to come.

First things first: Authorities should communicate to residents affected by wildfire smoke events, said Cassandra Moseley, who leads the Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice Center at the University of Oregon.

  • Officials should communicate when the air is hazardous, when people should close windows and when to avoid being outside.
  • Ahead of the smoke, outreach should focus on readiness, like how to access quality air filters and where to shelter if needed.

What they’re saying: “Communities everywhere increasingly need to prepare for smoke events as the climate warms, as mega-fires become more common,” Moseley said.

  • Communication from New York City officials to residents did not emphasize the urgency or danger of the smoke emergency, said Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, in a testimony to the city council.
  • His office has turned to municipalities including Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego to gather best practices moving forward, he said.

Driving the news: Smoke from wildfires in Canada has hung over parts of the U.S. since June, including Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Washington D.C. and Atlanta.

State of play: In Portland, Ore., responses to wildfire smoke include closing city offices and setting up clean air shelters, said Jaymee Cuti, a spokesperson for the city.

Of note: Air quality regulators on the East Coast sought advice from more experienced states during the Canadian wildfire crisis last month, Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, told The Guardian.

  • Outreach teams in Washington D.C. have alerted people experiencing homelessness about the poor air quality and resources available, including indoor cooling centers as shelters, according to the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
  • In Minneapolis, residents have been advised to reduce air pollution by avoiding backyard fires and gas lawnmowers. They’re also encouraged to carpool, use public transit, bike or walk in lieu of driving solo.
  • Illinois issued statewide guidelines on Tuesday, which include parameters for when to provide recommendations to the public.

Checking the air quality index (AQI) will remain “part of our new normal,” said Zach Iscol, commissioner of New York City emergency management in a testimony to the city council.

  • AirNow, a government-run website, provides the AQI for zip codes and cities. Users can sign up to receive notifications with their local air quality.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the West are using the recent smoke crisis to drive forward new legislation as a once-regional problem turns national.

Our thought bubble, via Axios’ Andrew Freedman: Canada’s worst wildfire season on record is being fueled by climate change and land use practices, with many fires likely to continue burning into the fall.

  • This means more opportunities for smoke to surge southward, across the U.S. border, causing harmful air quality in U.S. communities again and again.

Threat level: The smoke and poor air quality could be particularly dangerous to people with existing respiratory illness.

  • An influx of patients to the hospital during a wildfire smoke event could increase wait times and decreased bed availability, said Joann Sands, a doctor of nursing practice and a clinical assistant professor at the University at Buffalo.
  • Seattle’s wildfire smoke safety resource center advises people to leave the area if they cannot keep their indoor air clean, especially those with health problems.

Source: AXIOS