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Hochul warns New Yorkers to stay inside until smoke from Canadian wildfires dissipates

The Genesee River and Rochester skyline.
Max Schulte
The Genesee River and Rochester skyline. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on Wednesday classified the Rochester region's air quality as "unhealthy." due to the smoke from raging wildfires in Canada, (photo by Max Schulte)

By now everyone has noticed the smoky air covering many parts of the state, due to multiple major wildfires in Canada. Gov. Kathy Hochul says it’s not likely to dissipate anytime soon. She’s ordered the cancellation of all outdoor activities for school children and is warning New Yorkers to stay inside.

Hochul says the state has not experienced air this unhealthy since the pollution-laden 1970s. She says due to the smoke drifting in from the northern fires, New York City and Syracuse were among the worst places for air quality on the entire planet yesterday. The air in the rest of the state is classified as either unhealthy or very unhealthy, with increases in toxins as high as 800% between Tuesday and Wednesday.

“The bottom line is this: If you can stay indoors, stay indoors,” Hochul said. “ This is detrimental to people's health. In New York State, we have over 1.4 million people who already have asthma. And when the air quality is bad, it's a significant risk for these individuals as well as seniors, children.”

As well as New Yorkers still suffering breathing problems from long COVID.

The governor recommends that people once again wear masks to protect themselves. The N-95 masks used to reduce the spread of COVID also filters out smoke particles.

The state health department is also recommending that people limit outdoor activities in regions where the air has been declared unhealthy. The department’s website also says that “vulnerable individuals,” especially older people and those with heart disease, congestive heart failure or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, should keep windows closed and use purifiers or air conditioners with high-efficiency filters.

Hochul says she’s asked firefighting experts at the state Department of Environmental Conservation to assist Canadian firefighters.

But she stopped short of declaring a state of emergency, saying there’s not much that state government can do by deploying resources or asking for federal funds, to change the situation.

“A state of emergency is a mechanism you use when there’s something you can do about it,” Hochul said. “We don’t have a lot we can do about the circumstances of contaminated, toxic air coming into our air space.”

The smoke will be around until weather patterns change, or the fires are put out, and the governor says that’s not going to happen until at least into the weekend.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.