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Smoke from Canada's wildfires trigger air quality warnings throughout the U.S.


Canada is fighting wildfires in almost every one of its provinces and territories. Quebec is the hardest hit because lightning keeps igniting new fires. The fires in eastern Canada are the source of the smoke and haze that has triggered air quality warnings throughout the U.S. It's done the same thing in Canada. In the national capital of Ottawa, bordering Quebec, the Air Quality Index has been raised to its highest level. Elizabeth Payne is a reporter with the Ottawa Citizen, and she's with us now to tell us more. Elizabeth, hello. Thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: What are you seeing? What do the fires look like?

PAYNE: Well, the fires are very far away. But what it looks like - and probably people in the Northeast U.S. are now familiar with this as well - is it looks apocalyptic. The sky is very heavy. There's an orangish, sometimes a yellow haze, very gray. I spoke to someone, a doctor in Ottawa, who talked about opening his window yesterday morning, and the sky was bright yellow. So it's just a kind of unprecedented, very worrisome look out there.

MARTIN: Have any communities or areas been asked to or required to evacuate? And are there any reports of damage from these wildfires?

PAYNE: Oh, yeah. I mean, there's - this is - you know, this is, of course, very early in the season, and there's wildfires. This is a big country. There's wildfires, as you said, in almost every province in the country. So there have been lots of people evacuated. Some evacuate, and some have gone back. But I think in total, in six provinces to date, there have been 120,000 people asked to evacuate, something like 26,000 still unable to return home. And as you said, it changes rapidly, so, you know, new fires all the time.

MARTIN: Does the Canadian government have any recommendations for people near these fires, apart from what you just told us?

PAYNE: Well, there's lots of recommendations about taking care of your health. I mean, if you're very close to the fire - of course, some people are in - you know, have been in zones where they're given warnings that they might have to evacuate very quickly. And that's one thing. I mean, for the smoke situation in Ottawa, across Ontario and elsewhere, there's not necessarily any wildfires anywhere near us. That's what makes it so eerie. And there's lots of recommendations about how to protect yourself. Many people are wearing N-95 masks outside, and that's recommended, especially if you're working outside. Remain indoors. Keep your air conditioning on. They're cancelling recreational sports leagues and kids', you know, camps outdoors and things like that. Schools are keeping kids indoors for recess to protect them from the air quality.

MARTIN: That's a lot. You know, it's always hard to ask, you know, what the mood is when people are dealing with a situation like that, because, you know, you're talking about, you know, millions of people who are all going to react in different ways. But as near as you can from your reporting and that of your colleagues, how would you describe how Canadians are reacting to this? This could be Canada's worst wildfire season ever. So what are people telling you about what they're concerned about?

PAYNE: Well, I mean, I think, as you say, it's a huge country. I think generally there is alarm. Canada has fire - wildfires every year. But these are in people's faces, in their lungs, in their backyards in ways that we haven't seen before. And it's extremely alarming. And, you know, federal government officials have been very outspoken about the link to climate change and how this is the beginning of the season, and it's going to get worse. So I think there's alarm and fear about what people are experiencing.

MARTIN: That's Elizabeth Payne. She's a reporter with the Ottawa Citizen. Elizabeth, thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us.

PAYNE: Oh, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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