Here’s something that I, an Angeleno, never thought I’d do while visiting New York: When I woke up this morning to the flat light of a post-apocalyptic orange sun bobbing in a putty-colored sky, I fired up the air-quality app that I use at home. Just as I guessed: Haze from wildfires in the West has once again traveled across the entire continent — a distance of nearly 3,000 miles — to blanket the Eastern U.S.
On the air-quality index, the Environmental Protection Agency’s method of reporting airborne pollutants, parts of Manhattan are currently reporting numbers upwards of 175, putting them in the red “unhealthy” zone. Upstate, the air is even worse; parts of Syracuse are showing AQI readings as high as 261, earning them a purple indicator color for “very unhealthy.” All that smoke is coming from 80 large fires currently burning more than 1 million acres across the West, which continues to shatter all-time heat records. Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, for example, has burned an area that’s half the size of Rhode Island, and thanks to the smoke from that fire, Providence is currently showing AQI readings of 126. The fires will not be out anytime soon; the Bootleg Fire is expected to burn until Thanksgiving, although changing weather patterns can sweep the smoke from local skies.
While monitoring wildfire smoke has become a ritual for people living in the western U.S., it might be time for New Yorkers to familiarize themselves with one more data set in their daily lives. Although most weather apps now display current AQI, I highly recommend downloading a dedicated air-quality app — some of my California-tested recommendations include AirVisual, AirNow, PurpleAir, and BreezeoMeter — which show current readings as well as forecasts. (If you install a PurpleAir sensor you can join its reporting network.) When the AQI climbs beyond threat-level orange, it’s best to stay inside, avoid outdoor exercise, and wear a mask (again). You can also run an air purifier if you have one, although your AC unit will do the trick if you keep the filter clean. Setting aside the long-term health effects this kind of pollution causes— the tiny particles of soot known as PM2.5 get lodged into your lungs, causing a slew of adverse impacts — the short-term effects can include wheezing, stinging eyes, a runny nose, and dull, creeping headache. But a handful of smoky summer sunrises are not the only reason to keep such an app handy. Since hot days can trigger a chemical reaction creating ground-level ozone pollution from vehicular exhaust, it doesn’t take a wildfire to crank up the AQI to red in a world where one in five deaths worldwide are directly attributable to the burning of fossil fuels. Which, of course, also intensifies the heat waves and droughts that make wildfires more dangerous, more destructive, and more deadly.
Last time New York saw skies like this — which was in September last year, by the way, just to give you an idea of how much worse this summer is likely to get — the smoke stayed relatively high up in the atmosphere. Today, however, the haze will drop much lower, meaning we at street level are at a much higher risk of inhaling it all. On the bright (orange) side, the sunset is likely to be spectacular. Just watch it from inside your apartment.