A view of downtown Portland from the East Bank Esplanade is seen on Monday. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

A view of downtown Portland from the East Bank Esplanade is seen on Monday. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

Choking air from Western fires just won’t ease up

The air was so thick that Alaska Airlines suspended service to Portland and Spokane for a day.

By Sara Cline and Gillian Flaccus / Associated Press/Report for America

PORTLAND, Ore. — Relief from putrid, dangerous air spewing from massive wildfires across the West won’t come until later in the week or beyond, scientists and forecasters say, and the hazy and gunk-filled skies might stick around for even longer.

People in Oregon, Washington and parts of California were struggling under acrid yellowish-green smog — the worst, most unhealthy air on the planet according to some measurements. It seeped into homes and businesses, sneaked into cars through air conditioning vents and caused the closure of iconic locations such as Powell’s Books and the Oregon Zoo in Portland, the state’s biggest city.

“I don’t think that we should be outside, but at the same time, we’ve been cooped up in the house already for months so it’s kind of hard to dictate what’s good and what’s bad. I mean, we shouldn’t be outside period,” said Issa Ubidia-Luckett, a Portland resident, who was grabbing lunch on Monday.

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality extended an air quality alert to Thursday after it was to initially expire on Monday. The air was so thick that on Monday Alaska Airlines announced it was suspending service to Portland and Spokane until Tuesday afternoon. Hazy, smoky skies fouled Washington state and experts said some parts of California might not see relief until next month.

Zoe Flanagan, who has lived in Portland for 12 years, has barely left the house but braved the smog to walk her two dogs on Monday. On Sunday, Flanagan and her husband, in desperation, turned on the heater, which has a better filter than their air conditioning.

“I can feel it in my chest and then I just feel hungover despite not drinking,” she said. “I felt really hungover all day Saturday. I just couldn’t get enough water, I had a headache.”

Dylan Darling, a spokesman for the state’s department of Environmental Quality, said: “I grew up in Oregon and lived here a long time, and to see this much smoke for this long and wide spreading, really stands out in the state’s history.”

Some areas of central California blanketed by smoke are not likely to see relief until October, said Dan Borsum, the incident meteorologist for a fire in Northern California.

“It’s going to take a substantially strong weather pattern to move all the smoke,” Borsum told a fire briefing Sunday night. He said smoke from dozens of wildfires in the West and throughout California is pooling in the Central Valley, which already has some of California’s worst air quality even when wildfires are not burning.

Joe Smith, advocacy director for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, which attends to homeless people, said California’s capital city hasn’t seen consistent blue skies in weeks. People experiencing homelessness have grappled with an unrelenting onslaught of virus, searing heat and now, polluted air they can’t escape.

“Some of the toughest folks you’ll ever meet are people who live outdoors, unhoused, but it is getting to them,” he said. “We’ve got COVID-19, followed by excessive heat wave, followed by smoke. What’s going to start falling out of the air next on these poor folks?”

Twana James, who lives in a tent in Sacramento, coughed several times during a brief phone interview Monday, trying to clear her throat. She said her voice is not usually so hoarse.

“We got hella ashes from the fires, everything is covered in ashes,” she said. “It’s hard to breathe.”

In Oregon, places like the Oregon Convention Center in downtown Portland are being used as a smoke advisory shelter where people in need of healthy air quality can go.

Darling said typically during wildfires in Oregon, such as those in 2017 that carried heavy smoke to the Willamette Valley and Eugene area, people can escape to other areas of the state for clean air.

“That’s what’s standing out — there just isn’t a place in Oregon right now to find fresh air,” Darling said.

State officials say they are collecting data to see how these fires compare to those in the past and the effects, not only on people’s health but also the environment.

Tyler Kranz, a meteorologist at Portland’s National Weather Service office, said for the smoke to disperse Oregon will need strong enough winds blowing from the ocean towards land — but there needs to be a “perfect balance” of wind so that it disperses smoke but doesn’t further ignite fires.

“We need the winds to get the smoke out of here,” Kranz said. “We just don’t want them to be too strong, because then they could fan those flames and all of a sudden those fires are spreading again.”

As she ate lunch at a popular burger place east of Portland, one of only a few places open, Ubidia-Luckett said the smoke reminded her of stories long-time Portland residents tell about the thick ash that fell on the city when Mount St. Helen’s erupted in nearby Washington state in 1980. There was so much ash that for weeks many residents wore masks and had to clear ash off their cars.

After beginning the meal outside, Ubidia-Luckett and her 6-year-old son soon moved inside because the air was too much to take. The boy was with her because his first day of kindergarten was postponed Monday for the second time due to the hazardous air conditions.

“That’s the hard part for little kids. They’re so cooped up so what do you do?” she asked. “Eventually, they want to go outside.”

Associated Press writers Janie Har and Juliet Williams in San Francisco contributed to this report.

Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Talk to us

More in Northwest

Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp smiles while greeting supporters at a rally Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in Mount Vernon, Wash. Culp, police chief of the town of Republic, Wash., is running against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in November. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Culp is an atypical GOP candidate for Washington governor

Unlike most previous GOP candidates for the state’s top office, he is a first-time politician.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee poses for a photo, Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, in Olympia, Wash. Inslee, a Democrat, is being challenged by Republican Loren Culp, police chief of the small town of Republic, Wash., in the Nov. 3 election. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Inslee faces political newcomer as he seeks rare third term

The last three-term governor in Washington was Republican Dan Evans, from 1965 to 1977.

CORRECTS NAME OF CANDIDATE AT LEFT TO MAIA ESPINOZA INSTEAD OF OF MONICA MARCHETTI - Maia Espinoza, a candidate for Washington state superintendent of public instruction, is shown at left in an undated photo taken by Monica Marchetti and provided by her campaign. Espinoza is challenging incumbent state superintendent Chris Reykdal, right, shown in an AP photo taken Oct. 2, 2020, in Olympia, Wash., in the upcoming November election. (AP Photo)
COVID and sex education frame the state superintendent race

Maia Espinoza, 31, is challenging incumbent Chris Reykdal, 48. They are both parents — with divergent views.

Top (L-R): Suzan DelBene, Jeffrey Beeler, Rick Larsen. Bottom (L-R): Pramila Jayapal, Craig Keller, Tim Hazelo.
COVID isn’t the only issue in contests for three House seats

Incumbent Democrats face challengers who talk about immigration, federal spending and term limits.

Washington submits virus vaccine distribution plan to CDC

The state is working with local government, health care providers and others.

** ADVANCE SUNDAY EDITIONS DEC. 5 ** In this photo released by the Bureau of Land Management, bighorn sheep graze in a meadow on Little Vulcan Mountain, near Curlew, Wash., Nov. 23, 2004. Contract loggers for the BLM have thinned stands of Douglas fir, killed weeds and planted shrubs the wild sheep savor, all to protect the Little Vulcan Mountain herd from extinction. The idea is to open up thickets surrounding the meadow where the herd forages and bears its young, allowing them to see and escape from predators. (AP Photo/Bureau of Land Management, Glenn Paulson)
Bighorn sheep in Washington tests positive for disease

There is no treatment for wild bighorn sheep, and no preventative vaccine.

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best laughs during a light moment at a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Seattle. Best, the first Black woman to lead Seattle's police department, announced she will be stepping down in September following cuts to her budget that would reduce the department by as many as 100 officers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle’s ex-police chief joins KING as law enforcement analyst

Carmen Best retired from the police department amid a controversy over proposed budget cuts.

Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond. (University of Washington)
UW climate expert: We are moving into uncharted territory

State climatologist says the declining snowpack threatens water supplies as population grows.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, right, speaks, Monday, July 13, 2020, during a news conference at City Hall in Seattle. Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best, looking on at left, were critical of a plan backed by several city council members that seeks to cut the police department's budget by 50 percent. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Police investigate threats, messages against Seattle mayor

Homophobic slurs and hateful messages were left outside the home of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

Most Read