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Smoke chokes the Northeast — causing people to pull out their masks

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Coming up, imagine a household water bill so big it could wipe out hopes for a new car. First, though, we look at Canada, where hundreds of U.S. firefighters are joining the battle against wildfires.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Yeah. This comes as people across much of the eastern United States are waking up today to dangerously polluted air. Flights have been grounded, a New York Yankees game has been canceled and schools are keeping kids indoors.

MARTÍNEZ: Environment reporter Jacob Fenston joins us now from member station WAMU in Washington, D.C. Jacob, you're right in the path of that smoke. How bad is the air there?

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Yeah, it's pretty bad. I - you know, I noticed it first thing yesterday morning. I was on a bike ride going down a hill where usually there's a great view of the Washington Monument. You could barely see it. You know, I had to stop and take a picture. So if you're familiar with the air quality index or AQI, it's been, you know, between 150 and 200, which is considered code red or unhealthy air for the general public. You can really smell it outside, but it's been worse elsewhere. You know, in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and now moving south into Maryland, they've had what's considered hazardous air - so, like, you know, Major League Baseball games postponed, Broadway performances canceled. It was really one of the worst wildfire exposure events in recent U.S. history, exposing tens of millions of people in the most densely populated part of the country.

MARTÍNEZ: And how uncommon is this sort of air quality in eastern states?

FENSTON: It's really new. I mean, just to give you one data point, here in D.C., our worst air quality days are almost always on Fourth of July because of, you know, the big fireworks displays. So yesterday was the first time we've had a code red air quality day outside of Fourth of July in two decades, you know? So it's just not something we're prepared for. It's like the earthquake here in 2011. So, you know, just one little example. I have elementary school kids. D.C. public schools waited until after school started yesterday to announce, like, oh, we're going to keep kids inside during recess and outdoor sports. So - or cancel outdoor sports. So parents were just really left wondering, like, is my kid going to be exposed to unhealthy air outdoors at school?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. You're getting a little slice of California life there. When's the air supposed to clear up?

FENSTON: It depends a lot on the local weather conditions, on what happens, you know, in Canada with the fires. But the smoky air is likely to stick around at least today and into tomorrow. You know, in the meantime, officials are telling people, keep an eye on that local air quality and stay indoors if you can, especially keep kids inside and people with any kind of heart or lung conditions.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, this is smoke from fires in eastern Canada, mostly in Quebec. Are fires particularly bad this year? And what's going on? Why are they so bad?

FENSTON: Yeah. I mean, it has a lot to do just with the lack of rain. I mean, just here in D.C., for example, last May was the driest May on record since 1999. It's been really hot in Canada, breaking temperature records. And so those things create the conditions that make fires much more likely. And across Canada, it's just been a terrible start to the fire season. So far this year, they've had 10 times more acres burn compared to the 10-year average. And, you know, this is what it means to be living on a warming planet. On the East Coast, you know, we're used to thinking a lot about climate impacts like flooding and extreme heat. But more wildfires and more wildfire smoke like this, these are things that we can expect to become more likely because of global warming.

MARTÍNEZ: That's WAMU's Jacob Fenston. Keep some eyedrops handy, Jacob.

FENSTON: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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