Smoke fills our skies as the heat scorches everything else

Bruce A. Smith

Heavy clouds of smoke descended upon the Eatonville area on Tuesday, August 1, accompanying a severe heat wave. Temperatures have been in the 90s throughout the week, but more distressingly the heavy, gritty smoke has walloped many people, such as asthma suffers and cardiac patients, as air quality plummets and breathing becomes problematic.

The Washington State Department of Ecology (WA-DOE) announced Thursday afternoon that air quality in the Puget Sound region had reached “very unhealthy” levels.

In fact, the smoke is so thick it is blocking a portion of the sun’s rays, thus reducing the heat up to five degrees according to the Accuweather forecasting service. As a result we are not reaching the once-expected triple-digit temperatures.

Specifically, by 6 pm air pollution readings in Puyallup had reached an index reading of 95, according to Sean Lundblad, air quality monitor specialist with the DOE. On this index 135 is deemed “hazardous,” and the most sensitive of us will have to begin evacuating the area and find cleaner air to breathe.

We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Camille Saint-Onge, the Director of Communications for the DOE, told the Mountain News on Thursday.

But locating cleaner air might be difficult as the plumes of smoke are coming from many directions. Currently, the largest volumes of smoke are generated by the two dozen major forest fires in the interior of British Columbia, and driven south by unusual wind patterns emanating from central BC.

Other regional fires are also contributing to the air quality crisis. Saint-Onge said that smoke from two major forest fires on the Eastside, near Chelan and the Okanogan, are also riding towards us on the winds from BC.

Yet, we also have a major contributor locally, such as smoke from controlled burns and multiple wild fires at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). When the smoke first arrived on Tuesday afternoon, the Mountain News called South Pierce Fire and Rescue to determine where the smoke was originating.

It’s from JBLM,” the SPF&R dispatcher said, and gave the Mountain News a JBLM phone number to obtain more information.

Yes, the smoke is from multiple fires on JBLM lands,” the base dispatcher said when I called.

He added that a controlled burn had been conducted earlier in the week but had been extinguished by Sunday evening, July 30 in anticipation of the heat wave and stagnant air that often accompanies these kinds of weather systems of high summer. In addition, he said that JBLM had at least one additional wildfire from an unknown source on Tuesday and a second fire that had occurred in a live-fire zone, which was contained by bulldozing fire breaks. This fire was being allowed to burn-out since base authorities had deemed the area too dangerous to enter to further extinguish the flames.

However, these accounts of smoke from JBLM have been strongly challenged later by multiple officials from JBLM’s Pubic Affairs Office.

PAO Joe Kupistack told the Mountain News on Tuesday, August 1, that no fires were burning on JBLM lands on that date, but he did acknowledge that the base had been conducting a prescribed burn earlier and had put out that fire on Sunday.

Similar, but also conflicting information was delivered to the Mountain News on Thursday by PAO Joe Piek. He again acknowledged that JBLM was burning their forests in a controlled fashion to rid the lands of “understory,” which is shrub growth, saplings, and low hanging branches which can greatly add to a major conflagration, such as what is happening in British Columbia and east of the Cascades.

But Piek also said that multiple “small fires have broken out” in live-fire areas this week, and that these kinds of fires occur “rather frequently.”

In addition, Piek said that his Fish and Wildlife Service officials at JBLM had told him that a wildfire had erupted on Sunday night and smoldered until mid-day Monday.

They said it was not a big fire, but it produced a lot of smoke,” Piek announced.

Piek also said that he could not dispute what the JBLM dispatcher told the Mountain News on Tuesday, that the first wave of smoke in Eatonville was from JBLM fires.

I’ll have to take your word on that,” Piek said.

More disturbingly, Piek also said that JBLM will resume its controlled burn program once the smoke from BC dissipates. Hence, Eatonville area residents will not have clean air to breathe for the foreseeable future unless JBLM can find a better way to manage its forests. Perhaps bush-hogging the scrub areas and selective logging or thinning heavily forested zones will replace the need for prescribed burns.

In addition, the frequent fires in live-fire zones suggests that the environments where these training exercises are conducted are not properly constructed or maintained. This must be addressed and corrected.

Further, the JBLM smoke issue is more than just a local health concern as the Greater Tacoma area is in a non-compliance status with the US EPA for air quality, which impacts not only public health and safety,  but also commercial development and Pierce County’s financial well being.

The Mountain News-WA will continue to monitor this issue, and advocate for change at JBLM with state and federal officials.

 Coping with the smoke and heat

If you any tips on how to survive these troubling conditions, please let us know, or call the Mountain News at 360. 832. 6248, or email brucesmith@rainierconnect.com.

In the meantime, here are some of my strategies for living without air conditioning.

  1. Around midnight I start closing the windows to keep the cool air in the house as long as I can – usually until 1 or 2 in the afternoon the next day.

  1. I have installed fine-mesh filters on one window and have placed a high-powered fan in front to draw purified air into the house. When the house heats up and I have to open more windows, I crank up the fan to push more clean air around.

  1. I place wet “t” shirts on hangers to provide a little cooling moisture as the fan blows the air past them.

  1. I have established a “summer kitchen” on my porch by using a camping stove and propane BBQ.

  1. I wear a paper mask whenever the smoke feels too overwhelming. When I am outdoors I breathe through a dual-stage respirator that I purchased at a local hardware store.

  2.  I meditate, a lot. I consider this weather to be a physical assault and I am focused on “just getting through it.”

  3. I advocate for a change at JBLM. They must stop their controlled burn program and find a way to manage their woodlands without causing a public health hazard. I say: No More Smoke!
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4 Responses to Smoke fills our skies as the heat scorches everything else

  1. Paula Morris says:

    Sorry to hear about your breathing problems Bruce. I know…I’m having asthma issues. I guess the ONLY positive from all the smoke (according to the weather station) is that the hazy layer over us has prevented the temperature from going into triple digits.

  2. brucesmith49 says:

    So how are you coping with the smoke, Paula?

    Wanna join the advocacy party? Our state and federal representatives are below, and I’m in the process of contacting them all.

    Dave Reichert: 425. 677. 7414
    Adam Smith: 253. 793. 5180
    Randi Becker: 360. 786. 7602
    Andrew Barkis: 360. 786. 7824
    JT Wilcox: 360. 786. 7912

  3. The controlled burns are historic. The Native Americans did them for thousands of years to keep the trees down and the prairie open for camas, berries and hunting grass feeding animals. The camas and native wildflowers come back in spades the next year due to the extra nitrogen and other elements in the soil from the burn. Perhaps, a flexible timing would be better… like just before a rainfall.

    • brucesmith49 says:

      I understand fully the need for fire in the life of the woodlands, and their historical dynamic However, the current problem is that many others and I can’t breathe the smoke. What to do?

      Maybe we need to manage our forest differently. The fact that Native Americans burned the woods for millennia does not necessarily require us to burn the woods now. 880,000 people live in Pierce County. 140 people die annually in WA from chronic exposure to wood smoke. We need to come up with a new plan.

      Burning just before a rain storm maybe one facet to the larger solution, but I think the ultimate answer will be a multi-dimensional. Another part maybe to divvy up the woodlands with fire breaks to control the large conflagrations. As for reducing the under-story, DNR and timber lands use selective thinning. Additionally, we could use a comprehensive logging program that selectively and judiciously removes trees so that if a fire gets going it doesn’t get too big and generate too much smoke.

      We have two issues locally – one is what to do at JBLM. The other is how to manage the nearby – but large-scale – wilderness and timberland, such as the interior of British Columbia, and our own National Forests. Chelan and Okanogan burn every summer. Why is that, really? Can’t we do better than hope the forests don’t get too dry and burn too hot?

      The truth is that the past three summers have seen an intensification of regional forest fires, and the vast increase of smoke pouring into western Washington. This is a new dynamic and I think it is reasonable to assume that this is the New Normal.

      So, the forests are gonna burn, and burn big-time for the foreseeable future unless we do something about how we manage them. Addressing Global Climate Change is one element of this, but the fire/smoke situation isn’t going to change anytime soon. Hence, we need a new strategy.

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