The wildfire smoke choking North American cities in 2023 is a reminder of how things used to be a lot smokier here
My home province of New Brunswick1 has experienced a sodden end of spring and start of summer while significant swathes of burning Canadian forests have been spewing smoke into the atmosphere. Carbon traps are great until they combust. This is reportedly the worst wildfire season in Canada’s recorded history, with more than 3000 fires burning close to 20 million acres of land as of the end of June 2023, with 10 more weeks of summer to go.2 This scorched area is equivalent to the size of South Carolina or close to half of New Brunswick.
I’m not going to go into all of the reasons why there are so many fires, I’ll leave that to the better informed. I’m fortunate to live in a part of Canada which has somehow managed to avoid most of the wildfire smoke. I have a feeling that the wet weather around here, plus wind currents, has protected us from the worst of the haze and burning tree smells. But reading about how bad the air has been in places like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and New York City reminds me of the clean air I enjoy here and how so many indoor places are normally smoke free compared to how they used to be.
It’s easy to forget how much of an influence cigarette smoke used to have on everyone’s lives in North America3. For decades there were virtually no restrictions on who could smoke where, regardless of the increasingly obvious correlations between smoking and heart and lung diseases. My first office job, in the spring and summer of 1988, was one of the only times I’ve worked in a place where people could still smoke in an office setting. I worked in the dispatch office of a trucking company and a few of the full time employees smoked on the job. The company had two main areas where people worked. Fortunately I spent most of my time in the area where people didn’t smoke but the smell was unmistakable when I went into the other area.
But then North America began taking more and more steps towards smoking restrictions. The next office job I had was with the same company - two years later - and the ashtrays were gone by then, with designated smoking areas starting to become prevalent (these areas would eventually be moved outside, if they were provided at all). By 1998 so much of Canada had become smoke free that it was a shock to the system for me to travel to France that year and find that smoking was still fairly widespread there, even in offices. The smell hit me as soon as I stepped into the de Gaulle Airport in Paris and never let up while I was in the country. Great for irritating the nose and throat and causing headaches.
I was no stranger to smoke when I grew up. Several of my family members smoked cigarettes with the occasional cigar and pipe to provide some variety. I will never think of the smell of a lit Marlborough as anything other than dirty.
My parents were able to kick the habit by the late 70s/early 80s (I think my dad had actually quit smoking much earlier than that) but my brother has been smoking for at least 40 years and unfortunately continues. Other friends and family members have struggled with health problems arising after decades of smoking. I’ve never liked smoking (notwithstanding the fact that I’ve probably smoked a dozen times in my life) and I was deathly afraid of becoming to addicted as so many people have been.
Fun aside: you've never experienced how cigarette smoke can spread in cold air until you've been in a hockey rink. Or a curling rink. It feels like little invisible smoke knives piercing the insides of your nostrils - or the back of your throat - if you're a non-smoker.
Also, if you think I'm anti-smoking, then let me introduce you to my two family members who are extremely scent-sensitive, I'm sure you'll get an earful. Or a snootful. But I digress.
I still enjoy the smell of a fireplace or a campfire as it gradually turns logs to ash but that’s the limit and I prefer to keep some distance. I still remember the lingering blankets of smoke from bars and house parties and that smell colors my memories nicotine yellow. But the worst, most polluted times were during bingo games. There was a recreation centre near my home and at least once per week that hall would fill with people trying to win money by having the right numbers on their cards. The hall would also fill with smoke: cigarette smoke and bingo halls were a package deal, after all and eventually there would be a lightly bluish haze in the air, at least until someone opened the doors. There was a right of passage where the young kids in my area would volunteer to help run bingo so you’d come out of an evening’s gaming smelling like you’d been smoking up a storm (even if you hadn’t snuck a few cigarettes on the sly). Community service indeed.
All this to say that I’d be miserable if my skies were polluted with wood smoke like so many seem to be lately. So I feel for those who may have to endure the smells and haze for the next few days, if not weeks. It’s awful, simply awful.
If your air is relatively clear and smoke free, rejoice and hopefully it stays that way. I’ll do my best to enjoy the air I breathe, trusting that the worst smells I’ll have to deal with are the distant smell of manure near my town - earthy smell on earth - or the occasional skunk that wanders through the neighborhood. They’re horrible smells but so far they haven't been proven to cause cancer.
So how about this: if your air is clean, take a deep breath and savor it while you still can.
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Absolutely not the same place as New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Source: 2023 Canadian Wildfires, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2023_Canadian_wildfires
Many people still smoke and smoke in their private property, I get that.