The hazy, orange-brown cloud of smoke that descended upon the region Wednesday appeared like something ominous from a sci-fi novel or perhaps a trip to the dusty surface of Mars. Something so odd and forbidding that many Long Islanders decided to close up schools and businesses early and retreat to the all-too-familiar pandemic practice of staying home and wearing masks. The cause was smoke from Canadian wildfires that swept through the Northeast and managed to surprise both the public and, to significant extent, public officials. The intensity of the smoke — which was expected to linger at least to the weekend — poses serious risks, say health experts, especially for those with underlying respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis.
Once again, as with rising sea levels, stronger storms and intense droughts, this giant cloud of smoke reminds us of the fragility of our environment and our need to adapt and change as the consequences of global warming are felt across our planet and here on Long Island. Though hazy, polluted skies are often found in other parts of the globe, New Yorkers were stunned to learn on Wednesday that their air quality was the worst in the world because of fires raging in Canada — leaving many of us frequently checking air quality apps and punctuating the need for more air quality monitors on Long Island in particular.
While Thursday's response was better, public officials need to review their slow and scattered reaction to Wednesday’s startling smoke cloud covering. They must make sure that next time the public is alerted earlier and prepared better in how to respond. Should schools close automatically or is it better for youngsters to stay in class? What responsibility do businesses and government offices have when such a smoke cloud descends? How prepared are hospital emergency rooms and other health providers for such an event, especially if it is worse the next time? And what should the average person do, if anything, to protect their own health from this kind of smoke inhalation?
Like other environmental crises in the 21st century, warnings about wildfire smoke were already out there, waiting to be understood and accepted by the public. A 2017 medical study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, found that “the risk of wildfire is growing with climate change” and poses significant human health risk as a form of air pollution. Experts say wildfires, as the name implies, are hard to track and predict. And they are increasing in frequency and severity.
Ironically, America’s blue skies have become significantly cleaner since the 1970s, thanks largely to clean air laws and other regulatory restrictions on pollution. But global warming is undercutting those efforts. This wildfire event is like skywriting with its own message: Learn more about this new emerging health threat, be prepared, and have a playbook for action the next time it occurs.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.