That little bit of rain, our first for September, didn’t do much to clear the smoke-filled air in the Puget Sound region.
“The smoke is going to continue, and there’s probably not going to be relief for at least a couple days,” Gary Schneider, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle, said early Tuesday.
As of late Tuesday afternoon, weather experts were expecting a stronger low-pressure system to drift into Seattle late Thursday into early Friday, said NWS meteorologist Maddie Kristell. The Puget Sound region will likely then see the most “drastic air quality improvement” Friday into Saturday, she said.
“It’s trapped. It has no place to go,” Schneider said.
Even if we were to get strong marine breezes and a heavier rain, however, it might not clear the smoke as much as people expect, Schneider said. For one thing, there’s smoke off the coast, too, he said. “It would take more than a push to get it through.”
The sky above the smoke is clear and blue, Schneider said, and Tuesday would have been a nice September day if it weren’t for the fires.
“Our air quality, I know, is oppressive and it remains unhealthy at best and hazardous at worst,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a Tuesday news conference, adding that it’s at “historically polluted levels.”
Preliminary data from the state’s air quality monitor shows last week produced more days of hazardous air quality than in any period since the early 2000s, Inslee said.
Southern Yakima County and parts of Okanogan County have had the greatest number of polluted days this month, though the dirtiest air was recorded near the Columbia River Gorge and in Clark County, according to a Tuesday blog post from the state Department of Ecology. And wildfire season isn’t over yet, the post said.
More than a dozen wildfires continued to burn in Washington on both sides of the Cascade Mountains on Tuesday night.
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 in the past week or so, 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 are people’s homes — and taken down several hundred transmission poles, Inslee said Tuesday. In Central Washington, he added, about 200 miles of power transmission lines are down.
And if we don’t take measures to slow climate change, Inslee said, they’re only going to get worse.
Because the changing climate is leading to higher temperatures and more arid summers, vegetation across the West Coast is drying out — a process that’s setting the stage for more extreme fire danger days, longer wildfire seasons and greater acreage burn, said Crystal Raymond, a climate adaptation specialist and forest ecologist, during the Tuesday news conference.
“The situation we’re in now is unfortunate but it does not come as a surprise to fire scientists that have been studying this issue for years. … If we don’t take action now to slow climate change, the wildfire potential will only get worse,” Raymond said.
Inslee added that while some vegetation management strategies — such as clearing out overly dense timber to reduce the intensity of forest fires — will help slow the effects of the heating planet, it won’t make as much of a difference in grass or sagebrush environments.
“We need more action on climate change and less excuses (from the federal government),” he said.
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 morning, several of Washington’s larger fires were expected to be fully or significantly contained by the end of the week.
The 223,730-acre Pearl Hill fire, which split off from the deadly Cold Springs fire, was 90% contained on Tuesday, according to NWCC briefings.
The most active fires in the Pacific Northwest are in southern and central Oregon, according to the NWCC.
In Oregon, state police opened the first-ever mobile morgue to handle the expected deaths from the wildfires that have already claimed the lives of 10 people.
Another 50 people are unaccounted for and, of those, 22 are confirmed missing, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.
The NWCC gave the following status reports for Washington fires early Tuesday afternoon. A fire’s cause is unknown unless specified below.
- Cold Creek fire (started Sept. 14), west of Naches: 60 acres, 0% contained, active fire behavior.
- Big Hollow fire (started Sept. 8), northwest of Carson: 20,805 acres, 10% completed, moderate fire behavior.
- 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 (212 more than Tuesday morning), 53% contained, moderate fire behavior. Evacuation notices in effect.
- Whitney fire (started Sept. 7), northwest of Davenport: 127,403 acres (2,280 more than Tuesday morning), 85% contained, minimal fire behavior. Structures threatened. Evacuation notices and road closures in effect.
- Cold Springs fire (started Sept. 6), south of Omak: 188,852 acres of grass and brush, 60% contained, moderate fire behavior. 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, 90% contained, minimal fire behavior. Structures threatened. Evacuations, road and area closures in effect.
- Apple Acres fire (started Sept. 7), northeast of Chelan: 5,753 acres of grass, timber and brush, 97% contained, minimal fire behavior.
- Fish fire (started Sept. 8), east of Enumclaw: 141 acres of timber, 30% contained, minimal fire behavior. Cause: Lightning. Area closures in effect, and rolling debris has closed Highway 410.
- Customs Road fire (started Sept. 7), northwest of Curlew: 2,208 acres of timber and brush, 75% contained, minimal fire behavior. Structures threatened. 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. Area restrictions in effect.
- 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.