After a 2018 summer that saw Seattle blanketed in smoke blown in from British Columbia and Eastern Washington wildfires, Mayor Jenny Durkan and other local officials are preparing the city for more of the same this time around.
A new program announced this week will install improved air-filtration systems in five public sites around the city, including the Rainier Beach Community Center, at which a public event Wednesday introduced locals to various tools and techniques for staying healthy amid smoky conditions.
After tabling and demonstrations by local organizations and stakeholders, Durkan spoke on the health implications of the smoke. “How do we equip our city so that people … have somewhere safe to be when the smoke levels are high?” the mayor asked.
Also getting retrofitted with improved HVAC systems are the International District/Chinatown Community Center, The Armory, Fisher Pavilion and Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center, which Durkan suggested could be used to shelter those who “don’t have other safe places to go” when air conditions become critical.
Making smoke safety practical for everyone was on the mind of Ken Foss, a Seattle Parks and Recreation carpenter who demonstrated how to attach store-bought filtration screens to standard box fans to make an impromptu air filter.
“This is a huge savings compared to going out and having something installed in your house,” he said. “This is a $45 bill … compared to a couple hundred, up to a thousand, bucks for some sort of air-filtration system in your house.
Seattle experienced 24 total days of increased air pollution from wildfire smoke during both summers 2017 and 2018, with two days during the former and four during the latter deemed “unhealthy for all.”
“We were hoping the first year that it was an aberration, and the second year that maybe it was a second aberration,” Durkan said, “but we now know it may be the new normal.”
A recent report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program looked at the broader impact climate change will have on the Pacific Northwest, including wildfires and the loss of salmon habitats and ski slopes, pollination disruption and heat stress for regional crops, fishery closures and disease outbreaks — not to mention the ubiquitous rising sea levels and temperatures.
“The Northwest is projected to continue to warm during all seasons under all future scenarios,” the report warns, “although the rate of warming depends on current and future emissions.”
Between 2013 and 2018, it cost an average of $153 million in state and federal money per year to fight wildland fires in Washington, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. And the smoky summer days have had an increasing impact on the state’s outdoor industries — from Seattle kayak tours to mountain resorts.
Although wildfire smoke has not yet become an issue for Seattle this summer, officials predict it could become a significant one soon.
Warned Craig Kenworthy, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, “The forecast for August shows above-average fire risk in British Columbia.”