ITHACA, N.Y. — The smoke from millions of acres of wildfires burning in Quebec Canada has left a thick blanket of smokey haze over Ithaca and Tompkins County over the course of June 6 and 7.
The local air quality has spiked to hazardous levels according to an AirNow, an air quality reporting service partnered with the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
The Tompkins County Whole Health Department issued an official health advisory in the early hours of June 6 due to the air pollutants. By the evening hours, the department moved the advisory to alert status, and urged residents of all ages to stay inside and avoid outdoor physical activity if possible.
The Dryden Central School dismissed students on June 7, and the Ithaca City School District canceled all outdoor after-school activities. Local businesses remained open for business for the most part. But some, like the local coffee chain Gimme! Coffee chose to close early in lieu of the looming pollutants.
But Ithaca’s streets remained somewhat active with residents going about their days, amongst a backdrop of sepia-tinted haze.
The Ithaca Voice spoke with about two dozen people bravely roaming the campfire-scented streets, and breathing in toxins health officials were actively warning the public to avoid.
John Lemley, a longtime resident of Ithaca, spoke to The Voice over his lunch at the State Diner.
“Well, I’ve never seen anything personally like it but I suspect it’s not all that uncommon in certain parts of California, for example,” Lemley said. “But it’s the first time I’ve ever experienced something like it. And it is news to me that we would be likely to get smoke from fires in Quebec.”
“I’d read several notices — warnings about this last night on my email, which said wearing high quality masks of the sort that many of us were wearing during the pandemic wouldn’t hurt […] You know, it’s particulate matter and how much particulate matter do you need in your lungs? So I’m persuaded that it makes sense to wear one.”
Ava Forystek, a plant scientist, shared how surprised she was by how much the air quality in the city had degraded.
While walking her two german shepherds on the Ithaca Commons, she said “I couldn’t believe how bad it was in Ithaca today. Having two dogs, it’s really hard to exercise them with the smoke, but I’m not wearing a mask just so I can think about them a little bit more. So I don’t want to expose them to anything. I mean, it’s difficult. I live in an old house, my windows have cracks in them. So I am worried about exposure, but I gotta do what I gotta do.”
Forystek is not the only one thinking about animal life. Julie Kitson, a local contractor, said she was “nervous for the birds and the animals.”
“They can’t get away from the smoke,” Kitson said. “We can at least go inside and have some kind of filtered air. But I think a lot about, particularly, the birds —who have much more fragile systems than we do — in this kind of dense particulate matter. Small songbirds or hummingbirds are gonna — may not make it through a day of this.”
Alongside the birds, Kitson said her workers have also been a subject of concern for her throughout the last couple days.
“My employees are weighing heavily on my mind. As they come in and out, I just asked them all to make sure that they have masks on, be careful about even opening doors to people’s homes and letting this in, right? So, you know, we just have to hold tight here,” Kitson said
Some Ithaca residents, however, were unbothered by the poor air quality. Scott Babcock, an employee at NAPA Auto Parts in the City of Ithaca said he has survived a heart attack and claimed he “died twice in one day.”
“It’s not bothering me,” Babcock said, letting out a giggle. “I’m not even sneezing or coughing.”
Babcock called the the days of hazy skies unusual, but the event has been perturbing for others.
Unusual heat and drought associated with earth’s changing climate are suggested to be large drivers of the cause behind Canada’s wildfires, reports The New York Times.
Teddy Abera, a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at Cornell University with an academic focus on global development, said that he found the smoky conditions, and the growing effects of climate change, highly concerning.
“The climate is changing. There is no doubt about that. And we’re experiencing those impacts of extreme weathers, and we never know what will happen in summer with the extreme heats. So every year, this is increasing. The scale and intensity is expanding.”
“The way I see it, this is inevitable because of the human activity,” Abera said.
Norbet McClosky, the executive director of the Ithaca Health Alliance said that he thinks about climate change all the time.
“I have children and grandchildren. My wife and I worry all the time about what kind of world they’re going to inherit. I’m not certain we’re doing enough fast enough to really stave this off,” McClosky said. “If we reach a tipping point, where it goes the wrong way, then this might be what we live in on a daily basis.”