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The sun rises over a hazy New York City skyline as seen from Jersey City, N.J., Wednesday. Seth Wenig/Associated Press

When the sky over New York City turned a thick, silty orange on Wednesday, 8 million residents woke up in a new era. Until this week, the East Coast had remained cocooned, thousands of miles away from the walls of choking smoke that has become commonplace in Washington state, California, Oregon, and British Columbia. Not anymore.

The East Coast, along with the rest of the planet, has entered a new fire era, or – as Stephen Pyne, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University, calls it – the “Pyrocene.”

Fires have burned on Earth throughout its history, reshaping its landscape. But rising temperatures from fossil fuel burning and other human activities have tilted the balance, making wildfires more frequent and intense.

As a result, humans are feeling the impact of wildfires far from where they ignite. The blazes are also moving into areas that are normally waterlogged or frozen, pushing species closer to extinction and erasing some of the gains people have made in curbing pollution.

“We are creating the fire equivalent of an ice age,” Pyne said.

For the past few years, it has felt like fire is everywhere. In 2020, a wave of smoke and fire washed over the West Coast, burning over 10.2 million acres, and creating the second and third worst smoke days in U.S. history. (New York City’s orange Wednesday claimed the top spot this week.) Just six months earlier, Australia suffered through what is now known as the Black Summer, a months-long series of bushfires that sent native wildlife fleeing and swallowed lush coastal cities with wildfire smoke. Last year, the worst wildfires in two decades torched large swaths of Spain, Portugal, and Romania; in Northwest Spain, fires destroyed ecosystems and devastated local communities.


Scientists say climate change plays a role. The connection is not direct – rising carbon emissions in the atmosphere don’t drop the cigarette or down the power line, or create the lightning strike that sets things ablaze. But, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, rising temperatures can turn already fire-prone forests into tinderboxes. Warm air sucks water from soils and trees, leaving behind crackling, dry trees and brush that can easily turn into an inferno.

“Climate change just creates these favorable conditions for fires,” said James MacCarthy, a research associate with Global Forest Watch at the World Resources Institute.

There has not been a specific study identifying the extent to which climate change drove the ongoing Canadian fires. But several scientists said the record heat in Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, along with drought in Canada’s Atlantic region, likely helped create the underlying conditions for the blazes.


The Sudbury 17 wildfire burns east of Mississagi Provincial Park near Elliot Lake, Ontario, on June 4. Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry/The Canadian Press via AP

More broadly the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said greenhouse gas emissions have “led to an increased frequency and/or intensity of some weather and climate extremes” such as wildfires. And a 2021 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified climate change as the main driver of fire weather in the U.S. West.

According to one study from 2016, human-caused climate change has doubled the area of forest burned in the American West since the 1980s. As long as there is still fuel to burn, the researchers concluded, climate change will continue to “chronically enhance” the fire potential of the West. Another study found that wildfires in British Columbia in 2017 burned seven to 11 times more than they would without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

Then there are the emissions released by those blazes, as carbon locked in trunks and stems spills out into the atmosphere. Emissions from wildfires in Canada in May alone reached almost 55 million tons of carbon dioxide or almost a tenth of the country’s total annual carbon output. Most of those emissions will later be locked away again as the forests regrow – but some of that CO2 will linger in the atmosphere, creating one of climate change’s devastating feedback loops.


And it’s not just climate change. Fire is a natural part of many landscapes, including the boreal forests of Canada, Alaska, and Russia. But in the United States, and many countries around the world, decades-long policies of suppressing fires – rather than encouraging healthy burns – have created massive fuel loads just waiting for a spark.

“Fire was removed from the land in the same way that it was removed from modern houses and cities,” said Pyne, who is the author of “The Pyrocene: How we created an Age of fire and what happens next.” Eliminating the natural burning cycle of the landscape, he argues, is one of the hallmarks of humanity’s new fire age. And it has consequences.

In the years to come, scientists say, climate-charged mega fires will continue to be a part of life – and death. The emissions from fires are serious, but the air pollution impacts are even more so. Invisible, fine pieces of particulate matter can seep into the throat, the lungs, and even the brain. Around 10 million people every year are killed by air pollution.

Canada Wildfires Washington

With the Washington Monument in the background and a thick layer of smoke, the Marine Corps honor color guard rehearses on Thursday, in Washington. Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

And the number of people exposed to such pollution through smoke is rising. In the United States alone, between 2006 and 2010, fewer than 500,000 people every year were exposed to a single day of extreme levels of fine particle pollution, also known as PM2.5. Between 2016 and 2020, that number climbed to more than 8 million.

Fay Johnston, a public health physician and head of environmental health at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research, says the smoke from Australia’s Black Summer ultimately killed more than 12 times the number of people taken by the blaze itself. Studies have linked bushfire smoke to a rise in premature births, lower birth weights, and heart and lung problems that can follow children for years.

“The thing about fire smoke is that it happens at scale,” she said. “It’s not one or two otherwise robust people affected. It’s entire communities, young people, elderly people, pregnant people, and kids. That’s why it’s such a big public health problem.”


The hundreds of Canadian wildfires burning will surely also leave their fingerprints on human health.

The economic impact lingers for years as well. Last June, an electrical thunderstorm started a fire in Zamora’s Sierra de la Culebra, in northwest Spain, ultimately scorching a third of the forested area along with farms, fields, and bee colonies.

Almost half of the burned area was a forest of pine and centennial chestnut trees, a tourist attraction, and a sanctuary for the Iberian wolf, wild boar, and dozens of species of birds. The University of Salamanca put the economic damage at nearly $82 million.

The citizens affected by the wildfire set up a group to demand compensation and action by the authorities to prevent future wildfires, “La Culebra no de Calla” (La Culebra won’t remain quiet). Lucas Herrero, an architect who serves as the president, said a year later that some of the farming activities have resumed and that a few businesses received compensation. But many small tourism companies had to reinvent themselves, Herrero said. No one would go spend their holidays in a burned forest.

Such fires might seem like anomalous, once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. But for many people, they are already beginning to feel commonplace.

On the West Coast, residents have accustomed themselves to shutting windows and doors, donning N95 masks, and cranking up their air purifiers for weeks throughout the summer. As fires blaze around the world, others are learning to follow suit. There will be dark, “purple air” days when playgrounds sit empty and students learn online. There will be homemade air purifiers and eyes stinging with smoke.

For some people, the rising smoke has spurred environmental activism. In Australia, the Black Summer may have helped trigger a new push for federal climate policy. This week in Canada, however, lawmakers focused on budgets and inflation, even as the smell of smoke filtered into the halls of Parliament. And in the United States, wildfire smoke has not convinced some Republicans of the severity of climate change.

Sooner, rather than later, it may all start to feel normal. There will be a smoke season, just like there is now an allergy season, Pyne said. Fires will become a part of the rhythm of our everyday lives.

Prescribed burns, dramatically cutting carbon emissions – all of that will help soften the changes to come. But there is no getting around the fact that most of humanity is now plunged into an extra fiery age. “We have created a Pyroxene,” Pyne wrote. “Now we have to live in it.”

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