President Joe Biden has ordered all of the U.S.’s federal firefighting personnel to be ready to deploy to Canada as raging wildfires burn across the country, continuing to blanket eastern American cities in an unprecedentedly thick, smoky smog.
Washington has offered Ottawa any help it requests to battle the blazes, Mr. Biden said Thursday. He said the U.S. has already deployed 600 firefighters, including smoke jumpers, parachutists who can land in the middle of forest fires; hot shot crews, people who are specially trained to fight the hottest parts of the blazes; and air tankers, planes that bomb the fires from above with water. There are also fire personnel from a number of other countries and members of Canadian military deployed to trouble areas.
“I’ve decided, dictated the National Interagency Fire Center respond promptly to Canadian requests for additional firefighters and fire suppression assets,” Mr. Biden told reporters at the White House. He had previously informed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of his actions during a phone call late Wednesday, when the smog lowered the air quality in major cities in Ontario and the northeastern U.S. to among the worst in the world.
In a statement, Mr. Biden described the fires as “another stark reminder of the impacts of climate change,” echoing statements made by Mr. Trudeau and other politicians in Canada, though some conservative leaders have downplayed its link to an unprecedented wildfire season that has torched a vast swath of the country.
Mr. Trudeau tweeted that more U.S. firefighters are already on their way: “We’re seeing more and more of these fires because of climate change. These fires are affecting everyday routines, lives and livelihoods,” he said.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, however, on an Edmonton radio show, said she’s concerned about arson as the cause of blazes – a theory, not backed by evidence, that has circulated on social media since fires erupted in the province.
After a record-breaking day for poor air quality in New York City on Wednesday, the smog largely moved south on Thursday, pushing Washington’s air quality to 237, its worst reading so far. Air pollution from wildfires also remained well above healthy levels across much of Southern and Northern Ontario, and several areas in British Columbia and Alberta.
Dangerous levels of smoke have led to the cancellation of numerous outdoor activities, such as sports and school recess, in parts of Canada. Washington’s public school system cancelled all outdoor activities for the second day in a row on Thursday, and the Washington Nationals postponed a home game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team tweeted a photo of the team’s mascot, Gritty, trying to dissipate the smog with a handheld fan.
Health officials in both countries are advising people to stay indoors as much as possible and to wear KN95 masks for some protection as the potent smell of campfires permeates the air.
The cover of the New York Post on Thursday featured a photo of the Manhattan skyline shrouded in a Venusian yellow haze with the headline “Blame Canada!” The paper described the smog as “the unhealthiest thing to come out of Canada since poutine” under a banner of Canadian flags and the tagline, “Eh!pocalypse Now.”
The number of out-of-control fires in Canada fell to 234 on Thursday from 256 on Wednesday after the downgrade of more than a dozen fires in Quebec. At the current pace, the country is set to hit the worst fire season on record this weekend. More than 457,000 hectares have already burned, just shy of the existing record of more than 460,000 in 2014. Fire season lasts until September.
The disaster prompted debate on the role of climate change in the House of Commons on Thursday.
“Climate change is real, and we are seeing and living its impact every day,” said Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. “People have lost everything.”
No one has died as a result of the fires so far, but damage to people’s homes and infrastructure has been remarkable – threatening roads and electricity towers while burning commercial buildings and residences. In Fox Lake, Alta., an Indigenous community has reported at least 85 homes have burned, as well as its local store and RCMP detachment. In Nova Scotia, blazes have gutted more than 150 residences.
More evacuation orders will be lifted on Friday for residents in Halifax subdivisions where homes were destroyed by a fast-moving fire that sparked on May 28. Mayor Mike Savage described the disaster Thursday as “the most devastating fire of our time” and warned that the season is far from over.
People returning home now begin a new chapter: recovery. The Halifax Regional Municipality is setting up a community hub for residents who have lost their homes to speak with city staff. A team of 50 volunteers from a humanitarian organization, called Team Rubicon, are on site to help homeowners sift through the rubble of destroyed homes.
The bulk of evacuations in Quebec are from the northern part of the province and the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, including the towns of Chibougamau and Lebel-sur-Quévillon. Evacuees should not expect to return home before Tuesday in those areas, said Premier François Legault on Thursday, when much-needed rain is expected to fall.
Wildfires have so far burned more than 645,000 hectares in the province, which is nearly 500 times the average of the past decade at this time of the year.
The Premier was asked by reporters whether Quebec should have been better prepared to attack wildfires given their increasing threat. Mr. Legault said this year’s situation is a “surprise” but said the province’s Plan for a Green Economy is the best roadmap in the country to fight and adapt to climate change. He did add that it could be reviewed.
There is not a single mention of wildfires in the 2023-2028 blueprint.
On the opposite end of the country, the threat is growing. In British Columbia, which has not yet felt the full brunt of wildfire season, an immediate evacuation order was issued Thursday afternoon for Tumbler Ridge, a Northeastern community of 2,400 people due to an encroaching blaze.
“Be prepared for what’s coming,” said Bowinn Ma, B.C.’s Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Minister.
– With reports from Seth Forward and The Canadian Press