DARRINGTON — Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin is trying to stay positive after weeks of wildfire smoke smothering the town, but it’s getting harder.
“I think we’re all really, really tired of this,” Rankin said Wednesday, as the air quality index in Darrington climbed past 450, the highest reading in the country and among the worst in the world at the time. “We’re muddling through, we’re OK, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen it in my life here.”
On the AQI scale of 0 to 500, an average day in Darrington would register around 35. Anything over 300 is considered hazardous, likely to impact the health of everyone.
Large swaths of Snohomish County registered air quality levels well into the “hazardous” category Wednesday, as a choking blanket of wildfire smoke hit its peak. A rainstorm is expected to bring relief on Friday, followed by days of showers, according to the National Weather Service.
Darrington sits in a valley at the convergence of smoke from several ongoing wildfires. On Wednesday its AQI reading was higher than places like Lahore, Pakistan and Delhi, India.
The 14,000-acre Bolt Creek fire near Skykomish has swept smoke northwest across Everett since the morning of Sept. 10. In recent days, the 1,200-acre Loch Katrine fire north of North Bend and 2,300-acre Suiattle River fires just northeast of Darrington contributed to the region’s worsening air quality, said Phil Swartzendruber, an air quality scientist with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.
Loch Katrine is the closest wildfire to Seattle in decades, Swartzendruber said, burning about 30 miles east of the city and placing the region in the “prime outflow” of its smoke plumes.
Swartzendruber said an unseasonal weather pattern is to blame for smoke settling over the region. A lack of early fall’s typical wind and rain created a stagnant cycle of air, flowing east at night and west during the day, pushing smoke into the Puget Sound region and keeping it there indefinitely. Minimal rain in the past month meant more dry fuel for wildfires, too, exacerbating the problem.
Usually smoke around Seattle has blown in from Oregon or British Columbia, Swartzendruber said, so it has a chance to mix with clean air and dilute its impact when it settles down.
“But in this case, it’s our smoke and we’re right in the middle of it,” Swartzendruber said.
Trent Davis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle, said this weekend’s anticipated rain and cooler temperatures will dampen fires and help to scrub the polluted air.
Rain will likely be heaviest Friday afternoon, tapering into light showers through Saturday, Davis said. Another front could bring even more rain on Saturday and Sunday.
By next week, Davis thinks more fall-appropriate weather will bring regular showers and temperatures hovering in the mid-50s.
If as much rain comes as is expected, Swartzendruber predicted relief from the smoke by next week. Coastal cities could see improvement as soon as Thursday night if winds begin to pick up, with inland valleys following soon after.
“It depends on fire behavior, of course, and that’s unpredictable,” Swartzendruber said. “But with enough rain we could see fire season ending pretty soon.”
In the meantime, Swartzendruber said the best way to mitigate smoke’s health effects is to stay indoors as much as possible. Keeping doors and windows closed will keep the worst of the smoke out. Air purifiers are also helpful, even if that entails improvising a filter from a box fan, Swartzendruber said. More tips can be found on the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s website, pscleanair.gov.
If you must go out in heavy smoke, a tight-fitting N95 mask is your best bet, but staying inside is always preferable, Swartzendruber said.
In Darrington, the mayor sees masks on just about everyone out on the street — but he’s not seeing many people these days. The smoke covers the town “like a dense fog,” Rankin said, and people are staying inside as much as they can.
But with the hope of rain just a few days away, Rankin says folks are staying optimistic.
“It’ll be a relief not just for our own health, but we’re all concerned for the health of our forests just right outside,” Rankin said. “We’re thanking goodness rain is in the forecast today.”
Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @RHaunID.
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