Public-health officials say hazardous air conditions in Chelan and Douglas counties resulting from nearby wildfires are worse than in the days after Mount St. Helens erupted and the region was coated with ash.
CASHMERE, Chelan County — Smoke from forest fires burning in Central Washington is creating hazardous air-quality conditions and sepulchral skies over much of the Wenatchee Valley.
Nowhere have conditions been worse or persisted longer than in Cashmere, where, for the entire week, school is closed and athletics shut down to protect schoolchildren from smoke so thick it was visible in classrooms.
“We have never had anything like this happen in Chelan or Douglas county and maybe never in the state of Washington,” said Mary Small, public-information officer for the Chelan-Douglas Health District.
“We had three days with Mount St. Helens ash falling … and it was nowhere near the hazard level of what we are seeing now; this is worse than Mount St. Helens,” she said. “Our levels have been off the charts.”
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Wednesday, a sepia tint hung over the pretty town of about 3,000 people nestled at the feet of the Cascades. Since Friday, when the fires kicked up, 31 people have been to Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee and seven admitted because of smoke symptoms.
Wednesday evening, officials urged residents around the Mission Ridge ski area southwest of Wenatchee to leave their homes because of the rapid growth of the Table Mountain Fire Complex.
A fire spokesman for the nearby Wenatchee Complex fires, Mick Mueller, told The Wenatchee World that there had been reports of the Table Mountain fires throwing 8-inch chunks of burning bark 6 to 7 miles into the Mission Ridge area.
The newspaper reported that residents of 150 to 200 homes were told to leave.
Earlier Wednesday, the sun peeked out, and despite warnings from public-health officers, people in Cashmere walked dogs and sat on porches, and kids rode bikes because it was a comparatively nicer day, with at least some light in the sky. Few wore the masks recommended by public-health agencies.
Pear harvest was in full swing and businesses open. Highway work crews carried on, and people were out on the streets.
But the glints of sun Wednesday were just fool’s gold; the air quality here and in the surrounding area continued to be hazardous, with people advised to stay indoors and avoid exertion outside, or better yet, leave the area.
“Anyone with a travel trailer has loaded up and left,” said Jeff Gomes, mayor of Cashmere.
Stagnant air conditions were forecast to persist until at least early next week, which is not good news for Cashmere Schools Superintendent Glenn Johnson.
He closed the schools Friday, after sending 1,500 kids home early the day before. The district’s three schools sit at the base of the valley wall where smoke is pouring in through mountain canyons. The main source is the Table Mountain Fire Complex, made up of four large fires and about 20 smaller ones.
“Our problem is location, location, location,” said Johnson, sitting in the deserted school-district building, unsure when schools could reopen. “But we can’t take chances with kids’ safety.”
Because of the poor air quality, Central Washington University moved Saturday’s home football game against Azusa Pacific University from the CWU campus in Ellensburg to Pop Keeney Stadium in Bothell.
David Daniel, who heads the pulmonary critical-care unit at the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center, said the number of hospital visits in the valley so far doesn’t match the severity of the situation, because people with chronic lung problems now know to stay inside.
But as the situation persists, more people are likely to notice symptoms — irritation in their throat and lungs due to smoke, which includes not only the fine particles but invisible gases.
Public-health officials urge using an N95 mask — one that can filter out fine particulates — if prolonged exposure outdoors is necessary.
“My mantra,” Daniel said, “is if you can see the air, you shouldn’t be breathing it.”
The wildfires forced closure of a 27-mile stretch of Highway 97 from milepost 150 at the junction with State Route 970 to milepost 177, eight miles south of the junction with U.S. Highway 2.
Air quality was rated hazardous Wednesday in Cashmere and Wenatchee and holding stagnant; unhealthy in Leavenworth but trending better; and in Chelan, very unhealthy and trending better, the health district reported.
Winds pushed some smoke into the Puget Sound area, but most clung to the Cascades, said National Weather Service meteorologist Danny Mercer. The slight haze in Seattle on Wednesday was residual moisture from morning fog, but a little smoke may have hung above, he said. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency reports that air quality in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties is moderate this week.
Material from Times staff reporter Alexa Vaughn and The Associated Press was used. Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.