The tall ship Lady Washington sails off Port Orchard, through the smoky haze at sunset on Aug. 14. The smoke, from wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, had cleared later in the week but was expected to return Sunday evening. (Larry Steagall / Kitsap Sun via AP)

The tall ship Lady Washington sails off Port Orchard, through the smoky haze at sunset on Aug. 14. The smoke, from wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, had cleared later in the week but was expected to return Sunday evening. (Larry Steagall / Kitsap Sun via AP)

Editorial: Northwest smoky summers shouldn’t be the new normal

Wildfires get the blame, but it’s folly to deny the role of climate change in increasingly foul air.

By The Herald Editorial Board

You might want to take a few deep breaths this weekend while you can.

While a push of marine air late last week along the Washington coast has largely cleared smoky skies that had blanketed the Northwest for several days, the reprieve may be brief. The same weather pattern that had allowed wildfire smoke to park itself above communities throughout the state was expected to return this week, forecasters said on Thursday.

The National Weather Service on Friday said smoky conditions were likely to return by Sunday evening, with air quality deteriorating to unhealthy levels Monday and Tuesday.

The smoggy air and smoke, mostly from wildfires burning in Eastern Washington, but also Oregon and British Columbia, prompted alerts for “unhealthy” air by the Puget Sound Clear Air Agency, which advised even fit people not to exercise outdoors — even to avoid walking — in Snohomish, King, Pierce and Kitsap counties. The threat of the fine particulates in the hazy air poses an even greater threat to children, pregnant women and those with lung or heart ailments.

If the spate of bad air quality, similar to one last summer, seems worse than in the past, you’re correct. University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass, in his Weather and Climate blog, said he he’s never seen air quality this bad in the region.

“In central Puget Sound it is probably the worst in the nearly two-decade observing record of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency for any time of the year,” Mass wrote in his blog last week.

Is this haze — choking the air and turning the morning and evening sun into a red ball — what we can now expect for weeks at a time each summer?

As we see increasingly warmer summers and longer periods without rain in late spring, summer and early fall, the length and severity of wildfires in the Northwest has increased.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported 13 large wildfires had burned more than 211 square miles (141,440 acres) to date this year in the state and have consumed 256 square miles in Oregon. More than 600 wildfires are burning in British Columbia.

This follows wildfire seasons in the state that burned more than 200,000 acres in 2016, 1 million acres in 2015 and nearly 387,000 acres in 2014, according to the interagency fire center.

It’s folly now to continue to deny the role of climate change.

Climate change, of course, isn’t responsible for sparking wildfires. The causes of the wildfires remain a mix of lightning strikes, but also accidents, carelessness and even arson. But where climate change is responsible, writes Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in a commentary in today’s Sunday Herald, is in creating the conditions for more frequent and more destructive wildfires.

Trenberth, in the commentary, says it’s a poorly posed question to ask if extreme events are caused by global warming.

“However, we can say it is highly likely that they would not have had such extreme impacts without global warming. Indeed, all weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be,” he writes. (If a moister climate sounds like a contradiction to wildfire danger, consider that increased rain and snowfall in wetter seasons can lead to more forest vegetation that dries out later in the summer and can add to potential wildfire fuels.)

That puts one focus on increasing resources to fight and prevent wildfires, as state and federal authorities are working on. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, ranking member of the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, and bipartisan Senate colleagues, joined Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue last week for the release on a new federal wildfire plan that increases collaboration among state and federal partners.

But it also demands a renewed commitment to efforts to address climate change at local, state and federal levels and a reversal of the current course of the Trump administration, in particular that of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA last month announced its intention to roll back fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks that had been established by the agency during the Obama administration. The standards would have required fleetwide fuel-economy standards of 51 mph by 2025. Instead, the EPA, now under an interim leader following the resignation of Scott Pruitt, is seeking to freeze the standard at 37 mpg after 2020. At the same time the Trump administration has sought to revoke California’s long-established right to set its own emission and mileage regulations, rules that have been largely adopted by Washington and several other states.

While the wildfires have made the air polluion noticeable, that smoke has been added to an already constant presence of emissions from vehicles.

It’s not likely that the Trump administration will reverse itself on its scuttling of effective climate initiatives such as President Obama’s Clean Power Plan or the Paris climate accord; restarting those efforts will be left to a future administration. But we will have set ourselves back years in reaching those goals and beginning to see their benefits.

Even for all the smoke and haze, that’s clear to see.

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