By Bruce A. Smith
The smoke, and concomitant temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, returned to Eatonville again this week. Air quality began to deteriorate on Monday, August 28 and worsened today, Tuesday, with WAQA Index readings from the Department of Ecology reaching “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” The DOE’s Puyallup station registered a 127 by mid afternoon. WAQA readings range from 0 to 500.
Dramatically, Mount Rainier could not be seen from Eatonville. The smokey haze is caused by fine particulate matter as small as 2.5 microns, and such tiny bits of unburned wood, besides obscuring the beautiful vistas of a hot summer’s day, can be very dangerous. Those most at risk are people with lung, cardiac, and diabetic conditions. In addition, the smoke is filled with carbon monoxide gases and other chemical irritants that make eyes sting.
Today’s inundation is the third major smoke episode this month – totaling 16 days. The worst reading at the Puyallup stations was 239 on August 2, which was exceptionally “unhealthy.”
The current situation has become so pronounced that the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has issued a health advisory. Specifically, it identifies what kinds of health issues may be triggered or aggravated. The following comes from the TPCHD’s press release:
“Air quality in Pierce County has taken another turn for the worse, according to the State Department of Ecology. Wildfires continue to burn in Eastern Washington and wind patterns have pushed some of that air west, over the mountains. Current air quality in Pierce County may be unhealthy for sensitive groups. This includes:
– Adults older than 65.
– Pregnant women.
– Infants and children.
– People with heart or lung disease, such as asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
– People with diabetes.
– People who have had a stroke.
“Everyone’s health situation is unique. Check with your health care provider if you have concerns about air quality. Generally, sensitive groups should closely monitor air quality and limit time spent outdoors during times of poor air quality.
“People with chronic health conditions should check with their healthcare providers about how to manage during times of unhealthy air quality. Individuals with asthma or COPD should make sure to do the following:
– Have an asthma or COPD action plan that explains how to adjust medications and activities as needed.
– Follow instructions on how to clean and maintain inhalers and respiratory equipment.
– Ensure that children have rescue inhalers available at schools, daycares, and during activities and make sure they are not expired.
– Know your allergies or triggers and how to avoid them.
“Schools, coaches, after school programs, and student athletes should pay careful attention to the air quality forecast. The Washington State Department of Health recommends that people avoid outside exercise when the air quality is unhealthy. The agency also recommends canceling youth outdoor events when the air quality is rated unhealthy. This includes youth sports camps, practices, or games. Parents should talk to their children’s coaches regarding air quality concerns.”
In addition, the Washington State Department of Health offers guidelines for symptoms that might alert those at risk to a worsening condition:
- burning eyes
- sore throat
- shortness of breath
- worsening of heart and lung conditions
The WSDH recommends that folks suffering from a deterioration in their health seclude themselves indoors with air conditioning and air purifiers, or consider leaving the area. For those who must be outdoors, officials suggest that those afflicted wear a N-95 dust particle mask to help with breathing.
Most of the smoke comes from regional fires in the Cascades. The big culprit is a 4,600 acre blaze burning on Jolly Mountain, 13 miles NW of Cle Elam. The Northwest Coordination Center says that this fire was ignited by lightning in steep terrain on August 13, and is still uncontained despite 332 fire fighters combating the flames with 5 helicopters and 21 fire engines.
Contributing more smoke is the continuing conflagration in the Mabton area of Yakima, which is a 7,000 acre fire that started July 30. Other fires are still burning in the Okanogan and throughout the Cascades in Oregon and California. In fact, most of the these fires are expected to burn until the rains come in later September and early October.
Further, the potential for an intensification of these existing burns – or new fires starting – has increased significantly throughout much of the Pacific Northwest due to sustained high temperatures and low humidity. State and Federal fire-fighting agencies have issued a “Red Flag” alert for all of Eastern Washington and Oregon, meaning that forest conditions are so ripe for conflagration that a forest fire can start anywhere in this area at any time.
More troubling, the NWCC has announced a Red Flag alert for the western slopes of the Cascades in Washington, which includes those timberlands nearest to the metropolitan areas of the Puget Sound region.
Echoing those concerns, the Pierce County Fire Marshall has issued Burn Ban throughout the county, according to Assistant Fire Chief Tony Judd of the Graham Fire and Rescue Department. This ban includes all lands from Tacoma to Yakima County.
Reflecting the need for that ban, the burn in Grand Mound, now known officially as the Scatter Creek Fire, is still smoldering even though it began a week ago. The NWCC says this 375-acre fire is now 80% contained, but it has already consumed six homes and industrial buildings.
Wasmoke.blogspot.com predicts the winds may shift on Wednesday, bringing cooler temps and cleaner skies.
For more information on the smoke, state and federal responses, and our health:
Northwest Coordination Center (of the National Interagency Fire Center): https://gacc.nifc.gov/nwcc/
Puget Sound Clean Air Agency—www.pscleanair.org/burnbans.
State Department of Ecology—https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/enviwa/: Provides a map of active air quality issues.
State Department of Health—www.doh.wa.gov/smokefromfires: Provides information on how to protect against wildfire smoke.
National Weather Service—www.weather.gov/: Weather related alerts, including air quality.
Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department: www.tpchd.org.
Very helpful and insightful article. What needs to be done now so that future fires can be contained more quickly? I look forward to reading Part II of this story.
Thanks for posting your comments BSV. My preliminary view is that our forests, particularly National Forest and DNR lands will have to be turned into huge tree plantations, criss-crossed by fire breaks and roadways, with selective logging corridors to minimize the size of fires when they burn. The forests are gonna burn. That is our new normal. But we need to do a better job in controlling the size and number of fires, production of smoke, and the loss of lives of fire-fighters. Plus the costs of fighting fires. Currently, the Cascade Mountains and all of the forests related to them, from the Columbia River to an area just east of Los Angeles is engulfed in flames. Most of western Oregon, from Ashland to the southern reaches of Portland, have unhealthy air quality levels, and have been in that state since mid-summer. Worse, the folks in eastern Oregon and eastern Washington have been breathing unhealthy levels on a daily basis since June.