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Air quality is better, but smoky conditions from Canadian wildfires continue

Hundreds of wildfires in Canada are still raging, pushing smoke and haze into cities and towns across the Northeast. Areas all over the Southern Tier have been experiencing unhealthy and hazardous air quality since Tuesday.

Broome County officials said according to the National Weather Service, a shift in the wind could move the next wave of dense smoke further west, but the region will likely continue to see some smoky conditions until the weekend.

By Thursday morning, the haze had lessened, but an air quality alert remained in effect for most of the region until midnight Thursday.

“The conditions we're experiencing in Broome County are dependent both on fire behavior as well as winds,” said Patrick Dewing, director of emergency services. “It takes approximately 12 to 18 hours depending on wind conditions from the smoke from the north to reach Broome County.”

Broome County Executive Jason Garnar said in the meantime, they’re approaching things case-by-case.

“I don't think I've ever seen the horizon look like this before,” Garnar said. “We have plans in place for things, but this is something new that we've really never encountered before.”

Schools have limited outdoor activities, county employees who can are staying indoors, and there are two clear-air centers open at the Broome County library and at the Greater Binghamton Transportation Center.

Garnar said he’s been in touch with local hospitals about the issue.

“They're also seeing an uptick in people that are coming in with respiratory issues. So you know it's a real thing,” Garnar said. “And people really need to be careful and really take all these precautions into consideration.”

Garnar said residents should try to avoid going outside as much as they can, and if they must leave indoors he recommends wearing a mask.

"Hazardous" air quality is considered dangerous for everyone, while "unhealthy" air quality—anything over 100 on the Air Quality Index (AQI)—is considered dangerous for sensitive groups, such as infants, older people, and people with preexisting respiratory or heart issues.

Alistair Hayden is an assistant professor in the department of public ecosystem health at Cornell University.*

He said while local governments can’t control the spread of wildfires hundreds of miles away, there are some ways to protect residents from the impact of wildfire smoke, like clean air centers and filtration systems.

“Local governments that have the resources can help provide some of the equipment that can help people protect themselves from wildfire smoke,” Hayden said. “So providing tight-fitting N95 masks, but even more effective is providing air cleaners that can help keep a room clean.”

But he said local governments often need federal support to prepare for future wildfires.

“There's a lot of money within disaster programs that are designed just for cases like this, where there's this disaster happening. And I think more of that should go toward wildfire smoke disasters,” Hayden said.

The future is going to be more smoky, Hayden said, not less… and even when this wave of smoke is gone, we’ll still need to be prepared.

*Cornell University is a WSKG underwriter.