Wildfire smoke drives traditional summer camp activities indoors

The Canadian wildfires that have shrouded much of the nation in smoky haze are making it much harder for American kids to enjoy one of the staples of summer camp: fresh country air

Mark Scolforo
Thursday 29 June 2023 20:13 BST

The Canadian wildfires that have shrouded much of the nation in smoky haze are making it much harder for American kids to enjoy one of the staples of summer camp: fresh country air.

As a result, many camps in the Midwest and the East have been moving activities indoors, seeking advice from medical professionals and hoping the air quality improves soon so campers can get back to hiking, playing tetherball and waging games of capture the flag.

“There’s certainly a concern, considering that we take children from the cities,” Mark Zides, chairman of the Pennsylvania Camp Association, said Thursday. “Coming up to the mountains for the summer is what summer camp is all about.”

YMCA Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer in western Pennsylvania closed its outdoor pool Wednesday and sent home a few campers with health problems, said Karla Schell, associate executive director of the camp about 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of Pittsburgh. The camp is hosting 244 children in its traditional program and 19 adults in a program for people with special needs.

“We were definitely smelling it yesterday in the morning and then, as the air quality index continued to rise, we adjusted our activities just as we do with any weather change that we have,” Schell said Thursday. “There are some activities that we normally would have done outside. We were pulling those activities inside.”

Similarly, all activities on Wednesday and Thursday were moved inside at the eight camps run by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania — roughly 350 campers in all.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection recommended Thursday that young children, older people and those with respiratory problems avoid outdoor activities and prolonged exertion outside. The agency declared a “code red” for air quality and noted that the smoke was concentrated in the western part of the state.

Maggie Groce, one of the directors of the summer camp program at Tanglewood Nature Center in Elmira, New York, said kids were staying inside as the air quality level hit 183 — in the dangerous red zone.

“Ideally, we would love for them to be outside in nature, on the trails, so this has thrown a wrench on our plans,” Groce said.

As the center's day camps for elementary school children began this week, science projects with papier-mache volcanoes were being built inside, using kiddie pools to contain the mess.

Other common camp activities such as hiking and general running around have been called off. Groce said the older children understand, but it's been harder for the younger ones — particularly with a blue sky and the sun out behind the haze.

“It’s been really hard to explain to them on a perfectly sunny day that they can’t be outside,” she said.

Zides said some of the many camps in the Poconos and northeastern Pennsylvania have air-conditioned buildings where campers can gather, and a few even offer air-conditioned cabins. COVID-era air filtration systems were coming in handy to ameliorate the effect of the smoke.

“We are doing all we can to provide the safest environment to all of our kids and monitoring whatever it is that's going on,” Zides said. “If it means that we’ve got to keep them indoors for certain parts of the day, the majority of the camps have wonderful indoor spaces with fantastic program areas.”


Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela in New York and Brooke Schultz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.

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