Editor’s note: This is a live account of wildfire updates from Thursday, Sept. 17, as the day unfolded. It is no longer being updated.

About eight wildfires remain active on both sides of the Cascade Mountains in Washington, and thick smoke continues to cover the Puget Sound region — a haze weather experts say isn’t likely to clear out today.

The coast saw a bit of air quality improvement due to some showers and a little push of marine air, but the air around the Puget Sound region remains in the “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” ranges. It’s expected to stay that way as a southerly wind brings in more smoke from Oregon and California.

However, thunderstorms and a low-pressure system might bring some relief as we head into the weekend.

Throughout Thursday, on this page, we’ll post updates on the wildfires and their effects on the Seattle area, Washington state and the West Coast. Updates from Wednesday are here.

How to reduce your exposure to unhealthy air from wildfire smoke

2 people test positive for COVID-19 after staying at King County clean-air shelter

Two people who were staying at King County’s temporary shelter in Sodo to escape the poor air quality have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, the county Department of Community and Human Services said in a Thursday statement.

The county opened its clean-air shelter on Sept. 11 to bring people who are homelessness inside, to protect them from the wildfire smoke that’s polluted Washington air for the past week. Thursday, the county said the two people were at the shelter while potentially contagious.

Shelter staff are in the process of cleaning the facility and notifying all guests, staff and visitors about their possible exposure from Saturday to Monday, the statement said. Anyone who was at the shelter during that period was tested for coronavirus on Thursday.

Read the full story here.

—Elise Takahama
Advertising

Seattle parks to reopen Friday

Seattle officials are planning to reopen the city's parks Friday morning, which were closed at the start of the week to protect residents from the smoky air.

Because the air quality has improved over the past 24 hours, the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department said on Twitter, residents will be allowed to return to parks, along with the city's beaches and boat ramps.

The department noted, however, that smoke conditions continue to be a concern for children, seniors and those with health conditions.

—Elise Takahama

Lightning storm, easterly wind: How the wildfires got so bad

SALEM, Ore. — It began as a stunning light show on a mid-August weekend — lightning bolts crackling in the skies over Northern and Central California, touching down in grasslands and vineyards.

The National Weather Service warned that the dry lightning striking a parched landscape “could lead to new wildfire.”

It turned out to be a huge understatement. Thousands of bolts ignited hundreds of fires in California and at least one in Oregon, setting the stage for some of the most destructive wildfires the West Coast states have seen in modern times.

One month later, firefighters are still battling them, and at least 34 people have died in California, Oregon and Washington.

The massive wildfires renewed a longstanding debate over whether climate change or a lack of aggressive forest management played the bigger role this time around. Numerous studies have found that a warming Earth, which leads to higher temperatures and drier landscape, increases the likelihood of extreme events and contributes to their severity. But many experts have also argued that more needs to be done to thin forests and reduce debris so that flames have less fuel.

—Associated Press

Inslee broke law by bringing apples to fire-ravaged areas

SPOKANE, Wash. — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee thought it would be a nice gesture to bring some apples from his own tree when he visited communities ravaged by wildfire last week.

Instead he was breaking the law.

By bringing apples from trees growing at the governor’s mansion in Olympia, Inslee was violating state regulations about bringing homegrown fruit from an apple-maggot quarantine area into pest-free counties.

The Spokesman-Review reported that Washington is divided into quarantine zones, with large signs along the highways warning people not to transport homegrown fruit into pest-free areas. Most of Eastern Washington, which grows 65% of the nation’s apples, is pest-free.

“It was a nice gesture, but not well-thought-through,” said state Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake. “As the state’s executive, he should have followed the law to keep our state’s agriculture safe instead of putting it at risk. I think the stiffest penalties are in order.”

Bringing home-grown apples into a pest-free zone is a misdemeanor, but the state rarely cites anyone, said Hector Castro, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

—Associated Press
Advertising

More than 800,000 acres burned; Public Lands commissioner to talk wildfires Friday

As of Wednesday night, a total of 813,594 acres had burned in Washington State in 2020, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Although the most damage has been caused by fires that started this month, a spokesperson with DNR said there have been 1,458 fires in the state so far this year.

The acreage burned is more than 15 times the size of Seattle and almost two-thirds the amount of land burned during the state’s record-breaking fire season of 2015.

A house that was destroyed by wildfire is shown Sept. 8 in Malden. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been burned by wildfires, including most of Malden in eastern Washington state. (Jed Conklin / The Associated Press)
A house that was destroyed by wildfire is shown Sept. 8 in Malden. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been burned by wildfires, including most of Malden in eastern Washington state. (Jed Conklin / The Associated Press)

A makeshift firetruck sprays water on the 2015 wildfire near Omak, part of the giant Okanogan complex fire in North Central Washington.  (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
A makeshift firetruck sprays water on the 2015 wildfire near Omak, part of the giant Okanogan complex fire in North Central Washington. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

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.

Eight fires in Washington are being monitored by the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

On Friday, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz will be meeting with firefighters and officials at the Big Hollow fire in Southwest Washington, the state's largest uncontained fire, to talk about the fire outlook for the coming weeks and the state's stretched-thin firefighting resources.

—Christine Clarridge

Why are there 2 sets of air quality indicators?

Curious about the different ways air quality is measured and what the numbers mean?

Here's an explanation by Odelle Hadley, an air monitoring specialist with Olympic Region Clean Air Agency, for the Washington Smoke blog, a collective effort by state, county and federal agencies and Indian tribes to share wildfire smoke information.

Hadley writes, "The two indices, Air Quality Index (AQI) vs. Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA), have created a lot of confusion. Both AQI and WAQA are a unitless index calculated from a given concentration of air pollution."

Both state and federal government air quality maps use the same air quality monitors and data to determine air quality, but they each use a different index to represent air quality impacts.

Basically, Washington's standards are stricter.

"Washington state toxicology research found more protective levels would better serve our community," Hadley writes. A reading of PM2.5 concentration equal to 50 ug/m3 is considered "unhealthy" by WAQA standards, but only "unhealthy for sensitive groups" when using the AQI scale. 

—Christine Clarridge

Smoke gets in your eyes: Tips to ease irritation

Calls to optometrists began pouring in last weekend along with the smoke as Northwest patients sought remedies to relieve eye irritation caused by the worsening irritant in the air.

Those patients’ questions continued this week at Spokane Eye Clinic, said Alan Johnson, an optometrist for more than 23 years at the practice. Spokane Eye Clinic has 32 doctors and four locations, which all fielded the inquiries. Johnson said certain tips will help irritated eyes caused by smoke.

“I’m getting many flashbacks to a couple summers ago, and we had about two years in a row when we had a tough go with fires, and that was my first introduction to all the symptoms that can be present with the eyes that are out in that stuff,” he said.

“Back then, and as we are starting to get the calls today, we’re having a large uptick in the number of folks with burning, red, irritated eyes.”

A boat glides into the smoke and fog hovering over Lake Union on Sept. 15. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
A boat glides into the smoke and fog hovering over Lake Union on Sept. 15. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

For his patients and others, Johnson has several ideas to care for eyes and protect them from what’s in the air, including using lubricating eye drops and switching out the contacts for glasses.

Read the story here.

—The Spokesman-Review
Advertising

Western wildfire smoke causes East Coast haze, vivid sunsets

The smoke from dozens of wildfires in the western United States is stretching clear across the country — and even pushing into Mexico, Canada and Europe. While the dangerous plumes are forcing people inside along the West Coast, residents thousands of miles away in the East are seeing unusually hazy skies and remarkable sunsets.

A hazy sun sets over Richmond, Va., on Tuesday as the smoke from dozens of wildfires in the West blankets much of the country.  (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
A hazy sun sets over Richmond, Va., on Tuesday as the smoke from dozens of wildfires in the West blankets much of the country. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

The wildfires racing across tinder-dry landscape in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington are extraordinary, but the long reach of their smoke isn’t unprecedented. While there are only small pockets in the southeastern U.S. that are haze free, experts say the smoke poses less of a health concern for those who are farther away.

The sun was transformed into a perfect orange orb as it set over New York City on Tuesday. Photographs of it sinking behind the skyline and glinting through tree leaves flooded social media.

Satellite images showed that smoke from the wildfires has traveled almost 5,000 miles to Britain and other parts of northern Europe, scientists said Wednesday.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

In Seattle's bad air, what’s happening to the birds?

Are they vanishing, or can we just not see them in all this smoke?

Birds can be hit hard when air quality is bad, and some local birders say things aren't looking right.

The air quality has been rough on birds, but this song sparrow makes the best of things, taking a splash and a bath Tuesday in a Lake Forest Park backyard. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
The air quality has been rough on birds, but this song sparrow makes the best of things, taking a splash and a bath Tuesday in a Lake Forest Park backyard. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
—Erik Lacitis

Catch up on the past 24 hours

Optometrists are getting a flood of calls about eye irritation. Here's how to pacify your peepers and protect yourself from the bad air.

The smoke is drifting across the nation and around the world, delivering powerfully vivid sunsets along the way.

Will this year's fires be too big for Congress to keep ignoring? Some think so.

Fire experts say the nation needs new strategies to cope with the escalating threat of extreme climate change, which seems to be worsening fire seasons. And yet the country’s top fire science budget has been slashed. President Donald Trump has repeatedly said “forest management” — harvesting trees to reduce fuel for fires — is the key to preventing wildfires, but scientists agree no amount of “forest management” can stop disasters on an ever-more-flammable planet.

—Kris Higginson
Advertising

How are the wildfires affecting you?

Have you been affected by the wildfires in Washington state? Has the resulting smoke had an impact on your health? Are you on the front lines fighting the fires? Whoever you are, we want to hear from you so our news coverage is as complete, accurate and useful as possible. If you're using a mobile device and can't see the form on this page, click here.