DARRINGTON — A massive plume of West Coast wildfire smoke billowed to Puget Sound on Friday, making air unhealthy for everyone and blanketing cities in ashy clouds.
Air quality in Snohomish County was expected to get worse, according to the state Department of Ecology. It may not let up until Monday, when rain showers are predicted to improve air quality throughout the region.
“We are seeing very unhealthy and hazardous levels of air pollution throughout the state,” Ecology director Laura Watson said at a Friday news conference.
She urged people to stay home this weekend, even if the skies don’t look hazy with smoke.
“Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean you can’t breathe it,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Downey Creek Fire spread to over 1,000 acres about 17 miles east of Darrington, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The wildfire grew from 12 acres to 350 acres Wednesday, then tripled in size over the next 24 hours.
So far the fire in the Glacier Peak Wilderness is not threatening towns, Forest Service spokesperson Jim Chu said. The fire is slowly making its way to the Suiattle River Road, also known as Forest Service Road No. 26, northeast of Darrington, he said. It could burn for weeks.
A crew of 12 firefighters began battling the flames Friday. Their first goal was to begin clearing the road, because it had been “severely impacted by falling trees,” according to the Forest Service.
“This will be an ongoing project as the fire continues to back down to the road,” said a Friday update from the Forest Service. “There will be a backhoe and at least one contract timber faller working to clear the road. More timber fallers and equipment are on order. An aerial recon flight of the fire is planned for today to assess the size of the fire and fire activity. Yesterday’s flight was ineffective due to heavy smoke from the fire.”
Suiattle River Road is a vital link to the Glacier Peak Wilderness, the Pacific Crest Trail and about 120 miles of other trails, according to the Forest Service.
Local tribal members also use the road to reach traditional land.
The fire sparked in August, likely caused by lightning, burning between the Downey Creek Trail and the Sulphur Creek campground along the Suiattle River.
Many roads, trails and campgrounds in the area have been closed until Oct. 31, unless the ban is lifted sooner.
They include: Suiattle River Road from Buck Creek Campground to the east road terminus; Green Mountain Road; Green Mountain Trail No. 782, including the Green Mountain Lookout; Downey Creek Trail No. 768; Sulphur Creek Trail No. 793; Sulphur Mountain Trail No. 794; Suiattle River Trail No. 784; Bachelor Creek Trail No. 796; and the Sulphur Creek Campground.
All are in Snohomish County, in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Anyone who violates the closures could be charged with a misdemeanor and be fined up to $5,000 or spend up to six months in jail, or both.
Law enforcement and forest protection officers plan to patrol the area, especially during nights and weekends.
Crews monitored the situation at first but did not try to extinguish the flames because of the rugged terrain. The first priority was to make sure hikers were out of the area, Chu said. Thursday, the fire took off and flooded the surrounding valleys with thick smoke.
A much larger super-plume whipped north to Washington early Friday from giant wildfires in Oregon and California, where clouds of smoke blotted out the sun, casting an orange glow over major cities.
Over 626,000 acres had burned in Washington in the past week, or about 1,000 square miles, according to the office of Gov. Jay Inslee.
Businesses such as Brooklyn Bros. Pizzeria in downtown Everett closed their doors early on Friday due to declining air quality.
Even healthy Washingtonians may experience burning eyes, runny noses, shortness of breath, coughing and headaches. Sensitive groups are more at risk, such as those with underlying heart or lung diseases including COVID-19, the elderly, children and those who are pregnant.
Officials said everyone should take precautions to protect themselves. Stay inside when possible and limit outdoor activity. Close the windows in your home, and avoid running gas stoves. Use a portable air cleaner if you have one, or make one with a box fan and a furnace filter.
If your home gets unbearably hot, open windows for a short period of time. If you have an air conditioner, use it in re-circulation mode.
Masks labeled “N95” or “N100” are the most effective to protect from air pollution. A cloth face covering offers limited protection and should only be used as a last resort.
Throughout the state, 14 active fires have burned almost 627,000 acres since Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a Friday news conference. In just the past five days, wildfires have scorched more land than in any other year-long fire season, aside from 2015.
So far, over 1,000 people have been evacuated.
Inslee encouraged people to stay off the roads, especially in southern Washington, to make room for fire trucks and those evacuating.
Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste dispelled rumors blaming coordinating groups for setting the blazes.
“We are unaware of any evidence of coordinated activities to set fires,” he said.
Inslee also recommended homeowners remove combustible debris around their homes like shrubbery and pine needles to protect houses from catching fire.
With low humidity, high temperatures and howling winds, Washington is a currently a tinder box, Inslee said. And those conditions are becoming more frequent as the state’s climate changes.
“These are not just wildfires, these are climate fires,” Inslee said. “… We know that this is not some problem that can be 10 or 20 years away. It’s this Monday, when these fires exploded. These are already upon us.”
Herald reporter Caleb Hutton contributed to this story.
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; email@example.com; Twitter: @sanders_julia.
Stephanie Davey: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @stephrdavey.