“Gasp! How much longer???” is how the state Department of Ecology’s smoke blog put it Saturday.
The answer was, at least through midday Monday for Western Washington, and around Tuesday for Eastern Washington.
As the wildfires in Washington slow, gradual clearing of the smoke is expected to start on the coast on Sunday, moving west to east, according to the Department of Ecology and the National Weather Service.
“Our overall weather system pattern is not expected to change too much for the next 24 hours. As we get into later Sunday and certainly into Monday, we’ll have a stronger weather system that will give us stronger winds, and that should start to improve things,” said Matthew Cullen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle.
Rain is expected in the coastal areas Monday, moving toward the Seattle area, likely Monday night into Tuesday, Cullen said. “That would be welcome news,” he said.
Officials urged people to remain inside, and not to expect to find a secret refuge from the ashy haze spawned by fires that have raged this week across California, Oregon and Washington, claiming homes and lives.
“There are no pockets of clean air to retreat to this weekend. Your favorite campground or hiking trail isn’t going to be magically shielded from smoke, no matter what the elevation,” wrote Ranil Dhammapala, of the state Department of Ecology, on the department’s smoke information blog.
On Saturday, if you had decided to venture outdoors, you could drive from Bellingham all the way to Mount Rainier, and be in nothing but red, the color used by the state’s smoke forecast to signify “unhealthy” air, for only “bike or walk for short trips.” It was the same color for a drive to Aberdeen or east to Spokane.
The forecast for Sunday then improved, changing to a lot more orange, for “unhealthy for sensitive people.” The only forecast on Sunday with purple, “very unhealthy,” was for Spokane.
As of Saturday, there were 13 large uncontained wildfires in the state, totaling 665,000 acres, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, which manages the various agencies involved with wildfires.
For perspective, the uncontained fires are the equivalent in acres of 12 Seattles.
Oregon still had 14 large uncontained fires totaling 819,000 acres. A half-million Oregonians were under evacuation warnings or orders to leave. With air contamination levels at historic highs, people stuffed towels under door jambs to keep smoke out.
The death toll Saturday from the fires in California, Oregon and Washington stood at 28 and was expected to rise sharply. Most of the fatalities were in California and Oregon.
The biggest uncontained fire in this state on Saturday was the Pearl Hill fire, highly visible from the town of Brewster across the Columbia River in Okanogan County. That 220,000-acre fire was 64% contained.
There were no injuries, but 17 homes were destroyed and more than 500 were threatened.
Such a fire uses considerable manpower and equipment. For the Pearl Hill fire, along with the nearby and much smaller Apple Hill fire, there were 631 personnel assigned, including 60 fire engines of various sizes, three helicopters, 17 water tenders that look a bit like milk trucks and 10 dozers.
The next biggest fire on Saturday was the Cold Springs fire near Omak at 189,000 acres. It was 45% contained, again with “multiple structures” lost but no loss of life.
How do this year’s wildfires compare to previous ones?
The disastrous 2015 wildfires — the worst on record — burned 1.14 million acres in this state, according to the interagency. So far this year, the total is 790,000 acres.
That’s in contrast to the 284,000 average annual burned acres in a 10-year span from 2008-17.
On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee blamed climate change for the fires.
“This is not an act of God. This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways,” he said in a news conference.
On Saturday, Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said his office was still investigating as a possible homicide the death of Uriel Hyland, the 1-year-old from Renton who died in the Cold Springs fire on Tuesday. He said it’d be considered a homicide if the fire had been started by someone.
His parents, Jacob Hyland, 31, and Jamie Hyland, 26, are now hospitalized at Harborview Medical Center. A spokesperson said Saturday their condition has been upgraded from critical to serious and they are breathing on their own.
The family had been fleeing the fire and were found along the Columbia River.
Tammie Mabry, of Maple Valley, created a GoFundMe page for the family. In it Mabry says she’s married to a cousin of Jacob Hyland.
By 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the page had raised $225,557 for “the massive medical expenses.”
Mabry, who could not be reached, wrote that the family was on a short trip to their property in Okanogan, “deep in a rural area with no signal or communication.” She said their burned truck was found abandoned.
In various ways, the wildfires were affecting Puget Sound residents.
A couple in the small town of Pacific, six miles from the Sumner Grade fire in Pierce County, said that since Tuesday they had been packed and ready to evacuate, if necessary.
Alicia Sherry, 37, who does data entry, and her husband, Byron Sherry, also 37, a transit operator, said they’ve gotten used to the sound of firetrucks and helicopters.
“We’ve packed enough clothes for three to five days, and important documents, like birth certificates, photos, family memories,” she said.
Depending on how many minutes they have to evacuate, said Sherry, they’d also try and take their laptop and tower computer.
And, she said, they have a carrier for their cat, Bobby. Sherry said that Bobby better not go into hiding as the minutes tick away.
“We’re more important,” she said.