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U.S. sees reprieve from smoky haze, but Canadian wildfires are still raging

More than 400 wildfires are burning in Canada, and some of the smoke has carried south into the U.S. this week.
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The skies above parts of the eastern United States were starting to clear up Friday, giving a reprieve to residents after more than two days of acrid air and orange haze. But hundreds of ferocious wildfires were still raging in Canada, meaning that more smoke could waft across the U.S. in the days to come.

The blazes in Canada, stretching from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, have forced tens of thousands of people from their homes, burned through millions of acres and vividly highlighted the brutal realities of global climate change.

In Canada, 422 fires were burning as of Friday afternoon, including 228 considered out of control. More than 120 active fires were devastating Quebec on Friday, according to fire authorities.

In the eastern U.S., where smoke cast a sickly pall over urban skylines and the return of face masks evoked memories of the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, conditions were slowly improving Friday, but weather forecasters warned that air quality in many major cities was still dangerous.

"Smoke from Canadian wildfires continues to be transported south by winds into the U.S., resulting in moderate to unhealthy air quality across parts of the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Ohio Valley, and Midwest on Friday," the National Weather Service said in an update. "Some improvement is expected this weekend."

Daily life in the northeastern U.S. was showing signs of normalcy. Baseball games and other outdoor events started to refill weekend calendars, and throngs of tourists and office workers could be seen lining the streets of Manhattan, which earlier this week had been bathed in an eerie orange haze.

New York, a city of more than 8 million people, had been considered to have the worst air quality in the world this week, but by early Friday it ranked 15th on a list by the tracking service

Air quality alerts covered most of New York state, as well as Connecticut, New Jersey, all of Pennsylvania and Indiana, and parts of Ohio and Michigan, according to the National Weather Service.

"Leading up to the beginning of the weekend near-surface wildfire smoke associated with Canadian fires is expected to continue plaguing regions from the Great Lakes to the Mid-Atlantic with reduced air quality," the weather service said in a Friday forecast discussion.

However, it said that while a northwesterly flow around a low pressure system over the Northeast would "continue the flow of smoke over the region," it was expected to "relax and eventually shift to more of a westerly direction on Saturday."

Smoke modeling visualizations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and BlueSky Canada show the haze flowing out to the Atlantic Ocean Saturday and Sunday.

More coverage of the air quality

New York City Mayor Eric Adams had warned vulnerable New Yorkers to stay indoors and everyone else to limit their time outdoors amid the smoke. The weather service said an air quality alert extends into Friday for much of the area.

Other cities, including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., were also affected. Flights were also delayed or canceled because of the conditions.

Philadelphia schools were to operate remotely Friday out of an abundance of caution, the city's school district said.

New York City public school students who were scheduled to attend classes Friday were also shifted to remote, although a previously scheduled "clerical day" meant some students would not have been attending classes Friday anyway.

President Joe Biden and the leaders of other countries have sent or pledged to send firefighters or other help to Canada.

Weather radar showed light rain falling in some parts of Quebec on Friday. Still, fire danger will remain high, and in some areas, extreme, over the next five days, even as conditions have improved.

The province eased some forest restrictions and road closures on Friday as more firefighting resources were assigned. 

Wildfires could burn for much for much of the summer in Canada. 

Long-range forecasts for fire weather in Canada expect “above average” or “well above average” risk of severe fire weather for most Canadian provinces for the entirety of summer. Quebec’s risk falls off to average in September. 

“These fires are still burning and they’re going to continue to burn beyond the next few days,” said Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, during a Friday video briefing. ”Whether we see impacts here in Baltimore or along the eastern seaboard has a lot to do with where the wind is blowing at any given time.”