By Evan Bush and Denise Chow - NBC News
As smoke blanketed New York City in a sepia haze, city and state officials scrambled to mount a response to the unsanitary air. They called press conferences, issued health warnings and handed out masks.
But there wasn't much to do. New York and other East Coast cities responded to the wildfire smoke crisis without the same protective laws, preparedness and planning measures as usual on the often smoke-choked West Coast.
Even for a city that has been planning for years how to deal with climate change, smoke has not been a major concern.
A group of people take photos of the sun in the face of haze affecting New York City due to wildfires in Canada, June 7, 2023.Angela Weiss/AFP - Getty Images
"I honestly don't remember us looking specifically at wildfires," says Daniel Kass, who was New York's deputy commissioner for environmental health from 2009 to 2016.
Kass, who is now senior vice president of environmental, climate and urban health at Vital Strategies, a global public health nonprofit, said efforts were made to create detailed maps of communities and populations that are particularly vulnerable to climate emergencies, but that reports did not typically include wildfires and associated air pollution.
Wildfire smoke experts said it would have been difficult to foresee such dramatic repercussions in cities like New York, but that climate change is also reshaping natural hazards at a staggering rate and that leaders across the country must better prepare for the impacts. The smoke is a reminder that it is difficult, if not impossible, to insulate oneself from the threats associated with climate change.
Scientists have yet to study in detail the hot weeks and subsequent fires in northern Canada, but decades of research on wildfires and smoke say there is more risk of severe wildfires and shocking smoke as the climate warms.
New York state, unlike California, Washington and Oregon, lacks a law protecting outdoor workers from the impacts of smoke. The city's risk mitigation plan barely mentions smoke from wildfires. City officials have not disclosed the specific locations of clean air centers so people can take a break from smoke, a common practice in cities like Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, when the air becomes dangerous.
A man speaks on the phone near the George Washington Bridge from Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on June 7, 2023.Seth Wenig/AP
More than two days after the smoke began, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., called on the city on Twitter to "open city cooling centers to offer purified air" and provide personal protective equipment to vulnerable New Yorkers.
Officials and scientists acknowledged being surprised by the scale of the threat.
"People on the East Coast are not used to seeing these kinds of situations. There was a much slower response," said Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University. "We can probably learn a thing or two from our West Coast friends."
Marshall Burke, an associate professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, called the smoke a "historic event" but also a "wake-up call."
Burke analyzed Wednesday's smoke event and found it was the worst day of smoke exposure per person in the U.S. since 2006. Tuesday was the fourth worst. Smoke exposure levels did not rise as much as in West Coast cities in the past, but the overall impact was greater because the smoke reached population centers such as New York.
During the crisis, New York state and city officials conveyed many of the messages experts say are best: stay indoors and seek cleaner air. They closed outdoor events as visibility decreased and health risks skyrocketed.
After New York City sent out its first smoke notifications, Mayor Eric Adams said Tuesday he went outside and realized the city was facing something new and brutally nasty.
Images of how dense smoke affects two major U.S. cities
June 8, 202300:57
"It wasn't until I went outside and basically said, 'What the hell is this?'" Adams said at a news conference when asked by reporters when he realized smoke was a bigger problem. "It was clear that there was something different happening in the city," he added.
New York City's emergency planning documents and website, which are designed to assess all the hazards that could affect the city, have little mention of wildfire smoke.
Zachary Iscol, New York City's emergency management commissioner, said at a news conference Tuesday that the agency was working to develop triggers for smoke and other climate impacts.
"The other types of weather phenomena where we have a ready-to-use plan, which leads to certain specific actions. So that's something we're developing now," he said.
In a statement to NBC News, New York City's Emergency Management said its existing emergency plans are "scalable and flexible" in the face of various hazards, including the recent air quality emergency. The agency said it was organizing multiple interagency calls every day to address the danger, that it had sent smoke advisories through Notify NYC, its emergency notification system, and that other city agencies had distributed high-quality masks.
The unexpected effects of climate change have affected unprepared cities.
A weather blockade has caused the 'perfect storm' to bring so much smoke to the Northeast
June 8, 202301:17
Seattle had no specific plan for the June 2021 heat waves, when temperatures soared to 108.5 degrees higher than their previous record, in an event that scientists later said would have been "virtually impossible" without the influence of climate change. The city was not prepared for the heat: only two of its community centers had air conditioning, and only 20% of its drinking water sources – turned off during the pandemic – were operational on the first day of extreme temperatures. City officials later said they didn't have enough plan to help older residents. A record number of medical and fire calls tested first responders and overwhelmed local emergency services.
Smoky summers on the West Coast have pushed officials to revamp their emergency planning processes to deal with days of unhealthy or dangerous smoke.
In the Portland area, tormented by oppressive smoke in 2020, among other years, officials have developed a playbook shared among local agencies outlining specific actions to take, triggered by air quality index measures. Oregon authorities have adopted a similar set of measures.
Authorities advised using masks to filter polluted air. Alex Kent/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Ahead of smoking season, which typically begins in late summer in the Pacific Northwest, health authorities are organizing a week-long "Smoke Ready Week" campaign, which urges residents to purchase mechanical air filtration systems and create clean air spaces in their homes. explains Andrea Hamberg, director of environmental health services for the Multnomah County Health Department, which includes Portland. Throughout the year, the state and county work to distribute air cleaning devices to low-income residents.
According to Hamberg, the manual has several AQI (Air Quality Index) thresholds that trigger specific health guidance and measures in city and county departments. During prolonged smoke episodes, the city and county will open cleaner air centers, public spaces with air filtration designed to give people a break from the smoke.
The county maintains a list of public buildings equipped with air scrubbers, Hamberg said. It also keeps a limited amount of supplies on hand to help people build do-it-yourself air filtration boxes when smoke hits.
During the "very unhealthy" air episodes, which have occurred twice in the Portland area, officials will cancel all outdoor events, advise people to shelter in place and keep students home, Hamberg said.
There are also laws to address the smoke risks faced by workers.
"There is no way to breathe well": in New York they resort to the use of masks due to air pollution
June 7, 202301:34
Oregon lawmakers passed a law in 2021 mandating strict workplace standards for smoky events. Employers must provide N95 quality respirators for voluntary use by employees when AQI measures exceed 100 — levels considered "unhealthy for sensitive groups." Respirators are mandatory when the AQI reaches 251, or "very unhealthy."
The rules require employees to be notified of the presence of smoke and to move workers indoors and change their schedules during days of poor air quality. Washington and California have taken similar steps.
In New York state, there is no law regulating workers' exposure to wildfire smoke, according to Marina Jabsky, a policy expert with the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health.
Kevin Riley, director of UCLA's Occupational Safety and Health program, said he knew of no other state other than Washington, Oregon and California that had specific smoke protections for workers.
The conditions that brought smoke to the eastern U.S. are increasingly common due to climate change and historic fire suppression policies in North America.
A decade ago, fewer than half a million people in the U.S. lived in areas that experienced unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke for at least a day. In an investigation last year, Burke and other researchers found that the figure had risen to more than 8 million.
The Clean Air Act and other laws have markedly improved industrial and tailpipe pollution in the U.S., dramatically increasing overall air quality. Now, smoke from wildfires — which is not regulated by law — is reversing that progress in some parts of the country.
The Statue of Liberty covered by a thick layer of smoke. Getty Images
"In the last five to ten years we have seen a slowdown in progress in the West. And in the northern Rockies there has been a retreat," Burke says.
According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, as temperatures rise, wildfires are projected to become more frequent and severe in the country. Smoke is also expected to increase. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, the amount of smoke will increase 1.5-fold by mid-century, according to the report.
The same trends are seen in Canada, according to Xianli Wang, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, whose models envision longer fire seasons, warmer temperatures, less nighttime cooling — critical to dampening fires — and more smoke.
"We're living it," Wang says of the influence of climate change, adding that historical firefighting policies also play a role in increasing the amount of material ready to burn in North American forests.
Historically, the East Coast has not been immune to the impact of wildfire smoke, but this month's phenomenon is unexpected, even for researchers like Burke.
"It's the worst possible situation right now because of how the winds are moving and where the fires are. It's a fire hose on the East Coast," said Burke, who called it a landmark event that highlights the need to better prepare for smoke events in all regions of the country.
"Maybe we're prepared and we don't have another event like this in a decade, and that would be wonderful. Maybe we'll be ready and have one in July," he said.