About 30 large fires continued to burn across Washington and Oregon on Friday, destroying hundreds of homes, forcing thousands of people to flee and turning the pristine air of the Pacific Northwest into a hazy, hazardous mishmash of smoke and particulates.
The Washington state Department of Ecology predicted unhealthy air for essentially the entire western half of the state on Friday and through the weekend.
After six months of requests from health officials to wash your hands, avoid large gatherings and stay socially distant, a new plea came Friday: Stay indoors.
Seattle’s skyline was dominated by a miasma of whitish-gray haze as smoke drifted in and metrics showed the air worsening throughout the day. Over the course of the day, a dense and “supermassive” plume of smoke, from fires in Oregon, made its way northeast through Washington. By Friday afternoon, the air was classified as “very unhealthy” throughout the Puget Sound region and, even worse, as “hazardous” throughout Seattle.
The city smelled like a barbecue, but there was nothing festive about it. Officials recommended that everyone stay indoors, avoid all strenuous activity and close windows and doors. A “hazardous” rating means people with heart and lung disease should consult their health care provider about leaving the area.
The city of Seattle closed all city parks, beaches, boat ramps and play fields through the weekend, to try to discourage outdoor activity, although Mayor Jenny Durkan said the closures would not be formally enforced.
“I really implore everyone who can, please stay inside this weekend,” Durkan said at a Friday news conference.
Gov. Jay Inslee said roughly 625,000 acres have burned in the past five days, the second-most ever recorded in a year, trailing only 2015, as warmer temperatures, brought on by climate change, have dried out the state’s forests and grasslands, turning much of Washington into a tinderbox.
Poor air will persist in the region at least through Sunday, the state Department of Ecology said.
“Smoke currently covers most of Western Washington and parts of Central Washington,” the department wrote in a blog post. “Smoke is expected to continue its path across the state, impacting Eastern Washington later today. Overall, air quality is expected to slowly start getting better, from West to East, on Sunday.”
Craig Kenworthy, director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, said “the soonest we might see significant clearing looks like sometime early next week.”
Cloth masks, which are effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, do little to provide protection from the smoke, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, King County health officer.
Seattle and King County officials also opened another emergency homeless shelter, which can accommodate up to 77 people, in the Sodo neighborhood, saying they’d been weighing the risks posed by the smoke against the risks of indoor gathering during the coronavirus pandemic and decided it was time to act.
Thousands of homeless campers in the Puget Sound area are now living in air that isn’t safe to breathe. While in the past they could go to air-conditioned indoor spaces like malls or libraries, those places are largely closed because of COVID-19.
“It’s not just the shelter,” he said. “If someone was close enough to a public library, if they couldn’t get to a smoke shelter, I would’ve said ‘get to the public library for a few hours.’ ”
Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, said with many hotels sitting empty, local governments should expand their hotel programs, which have allowed hundreds of people to leave the streets and stay in empty hotels.
Susan Gregg, a spokesperson for UW Medicine, said they’d seen a “slight increase” in emergency room visits for respiratory issues. Most were people with underlying medical issues, like asthma or lung disease, Gregg said.
The weather on Friday is actually an improvement for firefighting purposes, in almost all ways, said Dana Felton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. Temperatures are as much as 20 degrees cooler than Thursday, the humidity is higher and the winds are coming primarily from the west, rather than the east.
But the good news is tempered by a sort of Catch-22 with fires that have already burned. Winds coming from the southwest are sweeping the huge plume of smoke, originally from fires burning in Oregon, into Washington.
“All the fire variables are better, but we have this unusual situation with a large amount of smoke blowing to us,” Felton said Friday morning.
The weather service isn’t expecting a significant improvement in air quality in the Seattle area until Monday, with the possibility of light showers Monday morning and more rain as the day progresses.
“The rain will bring some smoke particles down to the ground and pretty much clear out the air,” meteorologist Jeff Michalski said Friday evening. Tuesday and Wednesday could also bring showers, stronger winds and “more seasonal weather” with temperatures in the 70s, he said.
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that dozens of people remain missing in the aftermath of fires that have burned more than 1 million acres of land. The concern for loss of life is greatest in Jackson, Lane and Marion counties, which were all hard hit by fast-moving fires whipped up earlier this week by strong winds, Brown said.
More than 40,000 Oregonians have been evacuated, to escape the path of the fires, Brown said, a clarification from Thursday when the state said 500,000 residents had been evacuated. The higher number included those who have been told to prepare to evacuate, but have not been ordered to leave.
Inslee said he’s talked with Brown and that Washington is looking for places to house displaced Oregonians.
Washington’s two largest blazes are in Okanogan and Douglas counties, near the cities of Omak and Bridgeport. The Cold Springs fire has burned more than 187,000 acres, fueled by grass and brush, threatening 110 homes, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. About 275 firefighters, from six crews, are battling the blaze and it is 25% contained. Four planes are dropping water and fire retardant in the area.
Just south, across the Columbia River, is the Pearl Hill fire, which has burned 178,000 acres, destroying 17 homes and threatening 510 more. It is 50% contained, with 180 firefighters working at the site.
Updates on other fires around the state as of Friday morning:
- The Whitney fire, near Davenport in Lincoln County, had burned more than 123,000 acres of grass, brush and forest and was 5% contained, with evacuation orders for the area in effect.
- The Sumner Grade fire, near Waller in Pierce County, burned 800 acres of grass, brush and forest, threatening the homes of 1,000 residents. It was 20% contained.
- The Paterson fire, near Paterson in Benton County, burned 1,300 acres of grass and brush and was 75% contained.
- The Manning Road fire, near Colfax, Whitman County, burned more than 3,000 acres and was 25% contained.
- The Inchelium Complex fire, near Inchelium in Ferry County, burned more than 8,000 acres of timber and brush and was 25% contained. It threatens nearly 450 homes.
- The Evans Canyon fire, near Naches, Yakima County, burned more than 75,000 acres of grass, brush and forest and was 90% contained. It has destroyed six homes.
- The Customs Road fire, near Curlew, Ferry County, burned more than 2,300 acres of grass and brush after it was started by human activity. It was 15% contained, has destroyed five homes and threatens 50 more.
- The Big Hollow fire, near Stabler, Skamania County, burned more than 12,000 acres of forest and was 0% contained. It threatens 42 homes.
- The Beverly Burke fire, near Vantage, Kittitas County, burned 1,000 acres of grass and brush and was 100% contained.
- The Babb fire, near Rosalia, Whitman County, burned more than 17,000 acres of grass and brush and was 0% contained. It destroyed much of the town of Malden — 121 homes and 94 other structures, including city hall, the post office and the fire station. About 75 homes are still threatened.
- The Apple Acres fire, near Chelan in Chelan County, burned more than 5,800 acres of grass, brush and forest and was 50% contained.
Staff reporters Scott Greenstone, Hal Bernton and Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.