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Last Week Wasn’t Just Obscured Metro Skylines

An aerial view shows New York City in a haze-filled sky from the Empire State Building observatory, Wednesday, June. 7, 2023, in New York. Smoke from Canadian wildfires poured into the U.S. East Coast and Midwest on Wednesday, covering cities of both nations in an unhealthy haze, holding up flights at major airports and prompting people to fish out pandemic-era face masks. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

Smoke swept through the eastern United States from huge wildfires in Canada last week, introducing some people to a reality that the West has become all too familiar with: an ever-growing fire season and its intrusive side effect, smoke. 

The news was flooded with pictures of nearly indiscernible skylines in New York City, Philadelphia, Jersey City, and New Haven. New York City recorded its worst air quality index since the 1960s. I received no less than four different newsletters about the “eerie, smoke-filled cities” of the east coast.

But rural areas contended with smoke too, even if it didn’t make headlines. Hazardous air stretched through rural and urban areas of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. My dad, from rural Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, sent me this photo of a smoke-filled sky and blazing orange sun:

People were also dealing with the health consequences of such poor air quality. 

Some of the recommendations for when it’s smoky out are to stay indoors and purify your air – both good measures, but often unattainable for folks, especially rural, who work outside or don’t have easy access to stores that sell purifiers. In the West, some states have implemented rules that require employers to provide outdoor laborers with masks and frequent breaks, and urge work to be paused or moved indoors if possible. 

But in the East where wildfire smoke is less common, these protections aren’t in place. Employers can opt to protect their workers, like the city of Philadelphia which suspended trash pickup and street cleaning last Thursday, but many more don’t, and this is where it gets dangerous. 

Even just a few minutes spent in smoky air can trigger inflammation of the lungs. This is enough to exacerbate respiratory illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can lead to cardiovascular issues down the line. 

This is bad news for rural areas where hospital access is much more limited than in cities. Rural people are on average 10.5 miles from their nearest hospital versus 5.6 miles for suburban people and 4.4 miles for urban. (Note: this changes drastically per state: in Nevada, a rural person’s average distance to an acute care hospital is 118 miles). Limiting smoke exposure is all the more important in rural areas because of this lack of healthcare access. 

Of course, staying indoors and purifying the air is the best strategy, but isn’t always attainable. Installing a filter to the back of a box fan can work as a purification system in a pinch. If you do have to go outside during the smoke, wear an N-95 mask and keep your excursion short. Make sure you’ve stocked up on necessary medications, especially if you have asthma, COPD, or another respiratory illness.

And as always, remember to check on your neighbors. Wildfires are depressing and scary and frustratingly uncontrollable; they’re also a physical reminder of the very abnormal times we live in. Wildfire seasons are getting longer and more severe as temperatures increase and landscapes get drier and more vulnerable to fire, all due to climate change. 

Because of this, more and more of us will experience wildfire smoke, and it will be vital that we take care of each other through it. The 21st century feels pretty isolating, but only as much as we make it: we’re all under the same fiery red sky and smoky air.

Rural Reading List

Rural Communities Find Unique Solutions to Protect Against Wildfire Smoke Exposure

Rural communities in the western United States are no stranger to the dangers of wildfire smoke, yet little has been done to mitigate its health risks to rural people. Now, new solutions to address these risks are cropping up in several states.

Solar Farms in Colorado: Fossil Fuel-Free Energy Comes With Controversies

Residents of Montezuma County, Colorado, mostly support the development of solar farms. But as coops build out solar farms, concerns about farmland loss, wildlife, and quality of life for residents crop up.

Q&A: Telling the Intersectional Stories of Rural LGBTQ+ People

Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax went home to rural Michigan to tell the story of his late niece, Kalla, in his 2021 film “North by Current.” The film quickly became an intersectional project about identity, grief, and rural life that refuses to pigeon-hole the complex people at the story’s center.

One More Thing: Keeping an Eye on the Farm Bill

There are less than four months until the Farm Bill expires, but neither the House or Senate agriculture committees have made progress advancing a new farm bill. 

Last Thursday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned Congress that it must “do its job and get this legislation across the finish line — swiftly” to avoid the funding to some farm bill programs from expiring, including nutrition assistance and farm commodity support programs. This would adversely affect rural communities that rely on money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – 16% of rural households use SNAP benefits, according to the Food Research and Action Center

Congress has until September 30 to negotiate and pass a new farm bill.

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