How bad is our air?

It’s worse than in Beijing or Shanghai — and, on Friday, spending the day outside in the Puget Sound region was the equivalent of smoking almost nine cigarettes, according to calculations by researchers with Berkeley Earth.

Even before the wildfire smoke that started around Labor Day this year, Seattle air quality had taken a beating in recent years, with the American Lung Association giving King County an “F” in air quality on its 2020 report card, which includes ozone and particle pollution monitoring data collected during 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Over the past few days, our Air Quality Index (AQI) has been hovering between 150 and 180, which is in the “unhealthy” range and lands us among the places with the worst air quality in the world.

The highest rating, however, came in at 314 near Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood on Monday, making this year’s air quality the worst the Puget Sound region has ever recorded, said Dan Jaffe, a physical science professor at University of Washington Bothell who specializes in wildfire smoke.

And with the National Weather Service in Seattle reporting a southerly wind bringing in more smoke from the Oregon fires, the air isn’t likely to clear soon.

“I see a plume of smoke from fires in Northern California and mostly Oregon spreading over the whole Pacific Northwest,” said weather service meteorologist Jeff Michalski. “The amount of smoke is so incredible.”

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He said there could be some light showers headed our way on Friday and Saturday, but he couldn’t predict whether that would significantly improve the air quality.

A more westerly wind by the end of the weekend “could help,” Michalski said, but again, there’s so much smoke it’s hard to be sure what will help until the fires stop burning.

“We’re still in it until we see it’s clear,” Michalski said.

We have been through this before.

During the wildfire season of 2018, parts of the region had an AQI of 220, which is in the “very unhealthy” range. Even Port Angeles, on the Olympic Peninsula, had an AQI of 205 that year.

In 2018, Jaffe said the highest PM2.5 rating — which measures particulate matter, or how many tiny, inhalable particles are in the air — got up to around 150 micrograms per cubic meter. Two days ago, he said, Seattle hit 264.

“2018 was the highest ever,” he said. “We’ve now broken that record.”

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Air quality varies day by day, he said, but the average “bad day” in Beijing might measure between 80 and 100 micrograms per cubic meter, meaning Seattle’s current air quality is about 50% worse.

That being said, Oregon and California have seen “much worse” in the past several days, Jaffe said. In Oregon, the average PM2.5 rating has been between 400 and 500 micrograms per cubic meter, he said.

The advice from experts: Stay inside and breathe as little of that outside air as possible.

Jaffe added, however, that — while it depends on the age, type and ventilation system of a home — indoor air quality can sometimes be just as bad as outside. His advice is to pick up some air-quality monitors and invest in some reliable air-filtration systems.

“Think about identifying one or two rooms in your house and those are the rooms you’re going to protect,” Jaffe said. “Think about where you’re spending most of your time … and clean the air spaces there.”

How to reduce your exposure to unhealthy air from wildfire smoke
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Ten wildfires remained active Wednesday on both sides of the Cascade Mountains in Washington.

The blazes have burned more than 807,000 acres in Washington, or more than 1,260 square miles — about 15 times the size of Seattle. And although most of the fires started this month, the area burned is almost two-thirds the amount of land burned during the state’s record-breaking fire season of 2015.

The fires have also destroyed more than 400 structures — half of which were homes — and taken down several hundred power transmission poles, Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday. In Central Washington, he said, about 200 miles of power transmission lines were down.

The light rain Tuesday morning in Western Washington and northern portions of Oregon — along with high humidity, cloud cover and thick smoke west of the Cascades — moderated temperatures and kept fire activity minimal on large fires, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (NWCC).

As of Tuesday, several of Washington’s larger fires were expected to be fully or significantly contained by the end of the week. The most active fires in the Pacific Northwest are in Southern and Central Oregon, according to the NWCC.

The NWCC gave the following status reports for Washington fires Wednesday morning:

  • Inchelium Complex encompassing the Fry, Inchelium Highway and Kewa Field fires (started Sept. 7), north of Inchelium: 18,940 acres of grass, brush and timber, 60% contained, moderate fire behavior. Structures threatened. Evacuation notices in effect.
  • Big Hollow fire (started Sept. 8), northwest of Carson: 20,805 acres of timber and slash, 25% completed, moderate fire behavior. Structures threatened. Evacuation notices and road, trail and area closures in effect.
  • Whitney fire (started Sept. 7), northwest of Davenport: 127,430 acres of grass, brush and timber (27 more than Tuesday afternoon), 95% contained, minimal fire behavior. Structures threatened. Road closures in effect.
  • Cold Springs fire (started Sept. 6), south of Omak: 188,852 acres of grass and brush, 70% contained, minimal fire behavior. Structures threatened. Evacuation notices and road, trail and area closures in effect.
  • Pearl Hill fire (started Sept. 7 when it split off from the Cold Springs fire), east of Bridgeport: 223,730 acres of grass and brush, 94% contained, minimal fire behavior. Road and area closures in effect.
  • Cold Creek fire (started Sept. 14), west of Naches: 100 acres of timber (40 more than Tuesday afternoon), 0% contained, active fire behavior. Structures threatened. Road, trail and area closures in effect.
  • Fish fire (started Sept. 8), east of Enumclaw: 132 acres of timber (nine fewer than Tuesday afternoon), 50% contained, minimal fire behavior. Road closures in effect.
  • Customs Road fire (started Sept. 7), northwest of Curlew: 2,208 acres of timber and brush, 95% contained, minimal fire behavior. Evacuation notices in effect.
  • Sumner Grade fire (started Sept. 7), northeast of Waller: 494 acres of grass, brush and timber, 95% contained, minimal fire behavior.
  • Apple Acres fire (started Sept. 7), northeast of Chelan: 5,500 acres of grass, timber and brush (273 fewer than Tuesday afternoon), 99% contained, minimal fire behavior.

The NWCC has given no update on these fires since Tuesday afternoon:

  • Babb fire (started Sept. 7), north of Colfax: 15,266 acres of grass, brush and timber, 90% contained, minimal fire behavior. Structures threatened.
  • Manning Road fire (started Sept. 7), northeast of Colfax: 2,685 acres of grass, brush and timber, 90% contained, minimal fire behavior.
  • Evans Canyon fire (started Aug. 31), northwest of Naches: 75,817 acres of timber, grass and brush, 95% contained, minimal fire behavior.

More on the wildfires