(By Brandon Hansen/Chewelah Independent)
Smoke cancels sporting events, makes being outside hazardous…
At least the sky is blue, for now.
Chewelah has suffered three distinct smoky episodes this summer, causing air quality to plummet and health officials to suggest people stay indoors.
Last week’s bout of smoke was the worst of the summer, which is in turn the worst summer on record in terms of smoky air quality.
Wildfires were obviously the culprit as 47,000 burn across the western United States. Last week, a thick smoke blanketed the Colville Valley, making it nearly impossible to see Quartzite or the surrounding mountains.
Some wind and a change in weather on Friday, began to improve things and the weekend featured much clearer skies.
People welcomed the change, after the smoke had caused air quality to reach unhealthy levels. Many local sporting events were cancelled and local doctors offices saw an increase in people complaining about breathing issues.
The smoke caused the worst air quality for Spokane since the Clean Air Agency began tracking the region’s air in 1999.
The air quality index, which uses a 1-500 scale to measure particulate matter, lists numbers over 200 as very unhealthy while numbers over 300 are hazardous.
Spokane reached a high of 256 on Thursday, while the Colville air monitoring station also listed very unhealthy numbers during the week.
This caused local high schools to delay their Friday night football games by an evening. Chewelah cancelled it’s non-league contest against Liberty Christian altogether, while Chewelah volleyball also postponed a match earlier in the week.
Smoke came from the 29,400-acre Jolly Mountain fire in central Washington, the 49,000-acre Norse Peak fire on the Pierce and Yakima County border, the 164-square mile Diamond Creek fire near Butte Pass.
The North Fork Hughes fire of 3,700 acres in Eastern Washington also added to the smokey conditions as did seven Montana fires. Over a million acres has burned in Montana this summer.
The Eagle Creek fire in western Oregon has grown to 33,382 acres after teenagers were seen playing with fireworks. Located in the Columbia River Gorge, the fire threatened Multnomah Falls’ historic structures and scenery, closing forty miles of Interstate 84 and caused 1,865 residents to evacuate.
When air quality dips to as low as it got last week, the Tri-County Health District recommended that people stay indoors and try to keep indoor air as clean as possible. This included keeping windows and doors closed. and setting their central ventilation system to re-circulate and close the fresh air intake.
The Tri County Health district also handed out a limited supply of N95 and N100 masks for breathing from their office locations in Republic, Colville and Newport.
A cold front approached last Friday causing an improvement in air conditions. temperatures dropped this week to the 70s, and today is expected to reach a high of 70 with a 40 percent chance of rain.
Friday will see a high of 69 and a low of 41, and temperatures will hover around the 70s until Tuesday, Sept. 19 when temperatures drop to a high of 63.
There is a 20 percent chance of rain on Saturday, Sept. 23.
SMOKE COULD BECOME THE NORM
The fire season this year has burned an area the size of Maryland. According to Brendon Haggerty, MURP Enviromental Epidemiologist Climate and Health Program Oregon Health Authority, as summers get hotter and drier, fire seasons and smoke concerns will likely last longer.
Haggerty was quoted in a recent article by NWPR as saying “I look outside and I wonder if every summer is going to be like this, and I think the signs are pointing more and more toward yes — to some extent,” he is quoted as saying. “We can expect to have to deal with this more and more often as the climate continues to change.”
Haggerty said that since the 1980s the fire season has gone from a month to now over three months, maybe four.
This has health concerns as in Oregon, the number of asthma-related hospital vistis jumped 24 percent, according to NWPR.
In a May article by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Paul Hessburg an ecologist with the US Forest Service said warmer temperatures are having huge effects with the frequency of megafires — fires that reach over 100,000 acres.
Hessburg said that fire seasons are now 40 to 80 days longer than just 50 years ago.
Others point to forest management practices. In an article by the Daily Astorian, Nick Smith, the executive director of Healthy Forests Healthy Communities said big cities like Portland and Seattle don’t understand what the conditions on the ground for federal forests are.
“What we’re seeing right now is just how outdated and unresponsive our current federal management policies are to conditions on the ground,” Smith is quoted in the story saying, saying the forests are dense and overgrown.
Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers has been a proponent of responsible timber management, saying better practices are needed.
“We must be proactive in preparing for fires by actively managing our forests,” Rodgers said in a written statement on her Facebook page. “Across our region, our public lands are in disrepair. Our forests are diseased and bug infested, with dead trees and undergrowth waiting to fuel the next major fire.”
Rodgers pointed out the Forest Service used to produce 12 billion board feet of timber in the late 1980s, but by the 1990s, that had dropped to 2 billion board feed, resulting in thicker, unhealthy forests.
“We must put our forests back to work and decrease fuel loads to reduce our risk of catastrophic wildfire,” Rodgers said.
Either way, this fire season has been particularly nasty.
Chris Wilcox of the National Interagency Fire Center in an interview with NPR said that nationally there are over 25,000 responders out on wildfires. The national preparedness level for fire is at five, which is the highest on the scale from one to five. All national wildlife firefighting assets have been committed and the National Guard has ben activated.