EVERETT — Unhealthy air quality might stick around through Wednesday, according to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.
“You don’t have to be an atmospheric scientist to notice that the air quality has deteriorated markedly in the last 24 hours,” Dr. Chris Spitters, the county’s top health officer, said during a Tuesday news briefing. In north Everett Tuesday morning, the brown haze made it difficult to see the islands of Puget Sound.
Smoke from more than two dozen wildfires in central and eastern Washington, as well as some in Canada, covered north Puget Sound Monday night.
As of Tuesday afternoon, nine large wildfires blazed across the state, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said at a news conference with Gov. Jay Inslee.
Roughly 300,000 acres burned Monday alone, more than double the acreage lost in wildfires in all of 2019, she said. All are thought to be caused by people, she said, though it is not yet known if any were set deliberately or accidentally.
An unprecedented blend of high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds led to devastation that Franz called “frankly overwhelming.”
“What we saw Labor Day is my worst fear,” Franz said.
The smoke was expected to linger throughout Tuesday, agency forecaster Joel Creswell said. Metro Puget Sound had a chance for a small reprieve Tuesday night as a south wind kicks up, but another slug of smoke from central Washington may arrive Wednesday.
The Snohomish Health District closed two COVID-19 test sites Tuesday due to poor air quality. They are at the Lynnwood Food Bank and in a parking lot near Everett Memorial Stadium. The Everett location also was to be closed Wednesday.
“Staff are notifying all individuals with appointments to register for an appointment later this week, or to contact their health care provider if symptoms worsen,” according to a news release.
While the health district hopes to reopen Thursday, it will continue to monitor air quality while making decisions. Visit www.snohd.org/testing for updates.
On Tuesday, the Snohomish County fire marshal upgraded the county’s outdoor burn ban to include recreational fires, excluding charcoal and gas grills. Washington State Parks also banned all wood and charcoal fires at parks statewide.
Creswell advised staying indoors if possible. The air quality in Snohomish County is predicted to reach a level unhealthy for sensitive groups and unhealthy for healthy adults at times in the next few days.
The smoky air is most dangerous to people with underlying heart or lung diseases, including COVID-19, Spitters said. It can cause asthma attacks, chest pain, coughing, fast heartbeat, headaches, stinging eyes and trouble breathing.
Wildfire smoke also affects the elderly, those who are pregnant and children.
But the poor air quality makes outdoor activity harmful to anyone, not just those vulnerable to smoke.
“It is not a good day to go running or biking outside,” Creswell said.
If you need to go outside, he advised using the agency’s real-time air quality map at map.pscleanair.gov to check the current conditions in your area and plan around them.
Creswell also said people should make a clean-air space in their homes. To do so, close all the windows and doors to one room and use an air cleaner. Or make an air cleaner 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 recirculation mode.
Fire in this area
Several fires kept Everett firefighters busy Monday. They extinguished multiple Labor Day blazes, including along Highway 529 at a business called Pacific Topsoils, near Rotary Park in the Lowell neighborhood, and underneath the U.S. 2 trestle, Everett Fire Department spokesperson Rachael Doniger said.
Most were extinguished quickly, though the fire at Pacific Topsoils required more attention than the others, she said.
Crews were called to the scene around 6:30 p.m. and stayed until about midnight. Mounds of organic material had ignited, Doniger said. The business produces material like wood chips, bark and mulch. The Marysville Fire District was there for a couple of hours to help extinguish the fire.
No one was hurt. It’s not clear yet how any of the fires started, Doniger said.
“With dry weather we encourage people not to use fire or anything that sparks,” she said. “We are very dry right now with low humidity, so the potential for fire to start and get away quickly is high.”
That includes barbecues, she said. If people still plan to cook outdoors, the fire department recommends keeping a bucket of water nearby to extinguish any flames that get out of hand.
The department also asks residents not to call 911 to report smoke but to call only if there is an emergency in which flames are visible, or there is a known point of origin.
Marysville Fire District spokesperson Christie Veley had a similar request.
“We are just asking people please don’t burn, the fire risk right now is very high,” she said. “We don’t want to see fires in our community. We need everybody’s help with that.”
None of the local fires was large enough to significantly contribute to poor air quality in the area, Creswell said.
The number of wildfires throughout the western U.S. has steadily increased over the past 30 to 50 years, said Crystal Raymond, a research scientist with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. That’s because summers have been hotter and drier, meaning forests and grasses are primed to burn.
“We are living in a climate-changed world. This is not just a state of Washington issue,” Inslee said, citing situations in Oregon and California, where fires have scorched more than 2 million acres. “We are all in this together.”
Some of that hotter weather could be natural variability, Raymond said. But climate change is responsible for drier vegetation conditions throughout the West.
The wildfires in central and eastern Washington are a continuation of that trend, Raymond said.
“It just takes the right wind event to get that smoke to move across to the Puget Sound region,” she said.
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @sanders_julia.
Stephanie Davey: 425-339-3192; email@example.com; Twitter: @stephrdavey.
Additional reporting by Joseph Thompson and Jerry Cornfield.
Keep an eye on air quality
Visit www.pscleanair.gov and fire.airnow.gov to monitor the weather.