Wildfire Smoke — Now a Local Story in Unaccustomed Places

June 28, 2023
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Smoke from Canadian wildfires in July 2021 partially obscures the Minneapolis skyline. Photo: Chad Davis via Flickr Creative Commons (CC by 2.0).

TipSheet: Wildfire Smoke — Now a Local Story in Unaccustomed Places

By Joseph A. Davis

The orange — and barely visible — Manhattan skyline of early June may leave many environmental journalists elsewhere asking: Will it happen here?

The answer is yes, eventually.

It’s clearly time to view wildfire smoke as a local environmental health story.


Why it matters

Wildfire smoke, whether from near or far, contains a lot of air pollutants that can harm people’s health very quickly. The worst of it may be the particulate matter, the small aerosols that travel the longest distances.

Smoke particles of less than 2.5 microns in diameter are called PM 2.5. Under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given them the label of “criteria pollutants,” because they harm human health.

Smoke has large particles, too, which also harm health. But PM 2.5 are worse because small particles can be drawn deeper into the lungs and reside longer.


The EPA can regulate PM 2.5 from

industrial smokestacks, but you can’t

really regulate the air emissions of wildfires.


The EPA can regulate PM 2.5 from industrial smokestacks, but you can’t really regulate the air emissions of wildfires. PM 2.5 can cause lung irritation, coughing and difficulty breathing.

In more vulnerable people with preexisting conditions, PM 2.5 can cause asthma, heart attacks, decreased lung function and (after chronic exposure) even death. Babies whose lungs are not developed are especially at risk.

Wildfire smoke makes other health-harming pollution, too. Carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons also damage human health. And, of course, carbon dioxide turns up the thermostat on climate.


The backstory

Wildfire has been going on for a long time, but with climate heating it has gotten worse in the last few decades.

As such fires have increased in number and scale in recent years, smoke has become more of an issue, traveling farther, over continental and even intercontinental distances.

As a result, it has shown up and lingered in places that are far from the fires themselves, and which have rarely, if ever, experienced it before.

Manhattan would be one of them. In June, smoke from fires in Quebec and Nova Scotia was making Manhattan skies orange. More importantly, emergency rooms in New York City were seeing a jump in people in distress from asthma. Black and Latino children were affected disproportionately.

The June 2023 long-distance drifting of wildfire smoke from Canada went as far south as New Orleans. From this, one might conclude that wildfire smoke could be a problem anywhere.


Story ideas

  • Talk to your local emergency room personnel, especially the ones who keep statistics. How many asthma visits do they have during smoke events compared to how many they see normally?
  • Talk to people at local senior facilities, whether they are nursing homes or others. How have their residents reacted to the smoke — and what response to the smoke has the facility taken? Does it have filtered indoor air? Ask the same questions at neonatal facilities and nursery schools.
  • Are your local smoke events happening while kids are still in school? Are schools open? What is the status of their air conditioning, ventilation and air purification? What about outdoor play at recess?
  • What is your local health department doing and saying about the smoke event?
  • Who in your area does not have air conditioning? Many people or few? How are they coping? Have any of them improvised air purification?
  • What has happened to outdoor athletic events and activities? This could include everything from professional baseball to amateur soccer.
  • Find out what’s happening to people who work outdoors — this could include farm workers, garden services, construction workers, roofers, utility workers, warehouse workers, etc.
  • Talk to any homeless people in your area. How is the smoke affecting them? Is it worsening other health problems? How are they coping?
  • Are some places in your area more affected by smoke than others? What are the demographics in those areas, compared to your wider region?
  • What is the air pollution situation in your area without wildfire smoke? How does wildfire smoke make it worse?
  • Is your area closer to forest and other lands which tend to burn anyway during “fire season”? Will longer smoke exposure harm your local populations more?
  • What are people doing with their old pandemic face masks?


Reporting resources

  • EPA: The agency has lots of info about the environmental health consequences of wildfire smoke. You may get a better local angle from your regional EPA office.
  • AirNow: This (EPA-centric) multi-agency online platform gives data in near real time on air pollution, with a focus on wildfire smoke. It’s presented in map format so you can see your situation locally.
  • Centers for Disease Control: The CDC has info that can help you see wildfire smoke as a public health issue.
  • Health departments: Here are lists of state and local health departments.
  • American Lung Association: A national policy group that addresses wildfire smoke. By the way, it wants you to stop smoking, too.

[Editor's Note: For more, see our Toolbox on tracking respiratory health risks from wildfire smoke and an earlier Tipsheet on the health threats of smoke, plus SEJ Publication’s Wildfire Issue page.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 26. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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