Seattle spent the weekend under an orange hue as wildfire smoke continued to blanket the region, bringing air quality down to unhealthy levels for everyone.
After nearly a week of smoky air, there may be some relief on the horizon.
The National Weather Service in Seattle expects winds from the Pacific Ocean to begin moving the smoke out of Western Washington on Sunday, starting on the coast.
The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency reports that the Seattle-area will not see improved air quality until later Sunday. However, the Washington State Department of Ecology predicts that conditions won’t ease until Monday, with air quality moving into the “moderate” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups” range (read more about air quality ratings below).
The difficulty pinpointing exactly when the smoke will leave the region has to do with perspective — specifically a vertical perspective. As the Washington Smoke Blog notes, smoke at higher elevations had dispersed in parts of Western Washington on Sunday. This helped remove the orange hue that tinted the area under the smoke. But lower elevations still held smoke which was expected to linger for another day.
The Weather Service also forecasts that rain could arrive in the Puget Sound region Monday, with greater chances of precipitation Tuesday through the rest of the week. The rain could also help improve conditions.
But while conditions improve in Western Washington over the next couple of days, the Washington Smoke Blog warns that the eastern side of the state will continue to suffer a while longer. The same is true for parts of Oregon, where wildfire smoke will linger.
Officials with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources warn that the wind and potential rain could only be temporary relief. They note that dry conditions persist throughout the state, and there is still plenty of fuel for wildfires. They expect to continue fighting the flames.
People should stay inside as much as possible while unhealthy air quality continues. Keep windows and doors closed. Use an air filter if available. The Department of Ecology has posted instructions for a homemade air filter.
While many people have face masks due to the pandemic, health officials note that cloth and medical masks do not protect against smoky air. An N-95 rated mask can be effective against the small particles from wildfire smoke, but those masks are still greatly needed by medical professionals on the front lines of the pandemic.
Masks are still recommended to prevent the spread of Covid-19, however.
Northwest wildfire activity and response
State officials say cooler weather is helping fire crews make steady progress on Washington’s wildfires.
Thirteen large fires are still burning across the state as of Sunday morning, with the largest fires in Eastern Washington near Omak. Heavy smoke has limited visibility and the use of aircraft to help battle the fires.
The death toll from the wildfires raging on the West Coast stands at least 33. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes as destructive wildfires roar across the West Coast. That could lead to historic numbers of people turning to shelters in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
The fires and poor air quality have prompted evacuations and emergency services throughout Washington. The Northwest branch of the Red Cross reported that it served 2,396 meals by Sept. 10 as it responded to families in need as a result of the fires. By Sunday, Sept. 13, the Red Cross had distributed 5,330 meals. It has also been housing more than 200 people in hotels during this time.
It is estimated that about 5,000 people in the King County region do not have shelter. King County Executive Dow Constantine said Friday that the county would open a warehouse in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. The warehouse was already set up to be a “Covid recovery center” with air filtration. It can house up to 77 people.
There remains a stage 2 fire ban in King County amid ongoing unhealthy outdoor conditions.
On Friday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan closed all city parks in response to the deteriorating conditions.
“Because of the air quality and the hazard that it presents to all of us, all Seattle parks, beaches, boat ramps and play fields will be closed through Sunday,” Durkan said at a Friday press conference. “We will not be issuing any citations, but we really please urge everybody to stay inside.”
Northwest wildfire smoke and air quality
Wildfire smoke initially came from fires throughout Washington state in early September. But a second round of smoke came from the fires in Oregon and California. The fires from those two states had been moving out to sea, but then winds shifted the massive smoke plume and sent it to Western Washington on Friday, Sept. 11 where is stayed over the weekend.
Whereas air quality was previously unhealthy for sensitive groups or even moderate, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency recorded air that was unhealthy for everyone. Agencies like PSCA measure air quality on a scale of one to 500. The higher the number, the more unhealthy the air. The Seattle region has hovered between 100 and 200 over the weekend. The region peaked above 200 at one point and was recorded as the worst air quality on the planet.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.