Thick wildfire smoke turned the skies over New York City an ominous blood red — as if millions of its inhabitants had suddenly been transported to Mars.

The smoke is from close to 150 wildfires burning in Quebec, Canada, many of them started by a series of lightning strikes.

An estimated 100 million people are being impacted by the unhealthy air and are being urged to stay inside to avoid getting the fine particulate pollution in their lungs.

Flights along the East Coast were temporarily grounded because of the soupy skies and led to the postponement of a New York Yankees baseball game Wednesday night.

The smoke from Canada is being pushed into the United States by a low pressure system that is not expected to abate for several days. In the interim, multiple agencies are urging people of all ages to avoid being outdoors but especially those with existing respiratory conditions and the elderly who are at increased risk of heart attacks or strokes.

Been there, done that

While this is an anomaly for the East, Western states like Utah are all too familiar with smothering wildfire smoke and the unhealthy conditions it brings with its fine particulate pollution.

Just last month, Utah was among Western states being impacted from smoke due to wildfires burning in Alberta.

It’s beginning to be a common occurrence in the West, with traveling wildfire smoke that invades an area, leaving regulators and residents helpless to stop it and bearing the adverse health impacts of elevated levels of PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution.

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In August 2020, 43 million people in the West were getting their lungs clobbered by wildfire smoke and Utah regularly suffers from notoriously high levels of fine particulate pollution in the winter with its inversions.

Bo Call, manager of the monitoring section for the Utah Division of Air Quality, has been watching what’s going on with the Canadian wildfire smoke in the East.

“I guess, you know, maybe we shouldn’t feel so smug now that they have been given a taste of what we get most years,” he said. “I was thinking it looks pretty bad out there, but we have winters that have looked that bad and it hasn’t made the national news though.”

Wildfire smoke coming to your neighborhood is dependent on wind and other components of the weather. Call said one year, there were fires in states surrounding Utah but it never blew this way. Another year, smoke all the way from wildfires burning in Siberia made it into the state.

There’s little to prevent an onslaught of wildfire smoke if the weather is behind the wheel.

“Wildfires by their very nature are not planned. You don’t know that they’re going to happen,” he said “You know, you can backseat quarterback things and say, well, we should have done this or should have done that. But really, how can you plan on some event that starts things burning and then if the weather is just right, it blows all the smoke to you?”

The sun, too, can amplify the appearance of the smog, Call said, making it look worse than it really is in terms of air pollution values. He cited instances in Utah where the summer smog looked awful, but the monitors were not picking up any readings that were extraordinarily high.

“I feel bad for all the millions of people in New York in that area that are suffering from you know these super high numbers,” he said. “We’ve seen those type of numbers come at us.”

A national study showed that wildfire smoke, which accelerates the formation of ozone, contributed up to 50% of PM2.5 in recent years in the West, undercutting gains made under the Clean Air Act.

At the time, study co-author Deepti Singh, a Washington State assistant professor, said the high pollution events make it imperative for people to prepare, but it is a tall task due to the breadth of the pollution.

“If there’s such a large region that’s being affected by this air pollution, it really limits where people can go to escape those conditions,” she said in a post on the study.

Health officials and regulators stress that as in the West, which is more used to wildfire smoke, residents being impacted in the eastern and central United States need to take it seriously and stay inside.