Smoky… the unbearable: air quality drops over the weekend

(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)

High noon in Chewelah looked like dusk as smoke choked out the sun and Quartzite Mountain. (K.S. Brooks photo)

Hazardous and unhealthy air quality hit Stevens County as wildfires rage in Northwest…

When Stevens County resident Liz Flugel woke up on Sunday morning, she went out to water her horses and saw the sun poking out from the smoke screen that had been blanketing the region in August.

To her horror, as she has asthma and previously suffered a heart attack, the sun highlighted the particles in the air from the smoke and made it look as if the area was getting a “glitter shower.”

Air quality for the Inland Northwest is the worst in the nation, as Spokane and Stevens counties have dealt with hazardous air quality ratings for the previous two days.

Here is what Washington looked like from space on Sunday. (NWS photo)

For sensitive groups such as young children, elderly, those with asthma and those with heart conditions, this smoke can make conditions almost unbearable as wildfires rage across British Columbia and the western US.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, approximately 110 large wildfires are currently burning on about 1.8 million acres of private, state, tribal and federal land. There are 26,000 interagency fire personnel, including about 528 crews, 1,400+ engines, about 172 helicopters and 24 Airtankers deployed to these fires.

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) reported 25 large fires between Washington and Oregon, including at least one burning in western Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula. Lake Chelan – a popular tourist destination in the state, had two of the largest fires in Washington, with the Crescent Mountain Fire to the north burning at more than 23,000 acres, and the Cougar Creek Fire south of the lake up to more than 38,000 acres.

As of August 15, there were 450 fires burning in British Columbia, of which 195 were out of control. The province has declared a state of emergency. Thirty evacuation orders are in effect across the province, affecting more than 3,000 people. Approximately 19,000 people are under evacuation alerts as well.

With all this activity and shifting winds, air quality plummeted on Sunday to the point where it became hazardous for all individuals to be outside in Stevens County.

On Sunday, Chewelah’s air quality dropped to an AQI of 314 and Spokane woke up on Monday to even worse quality.

Some religous services were cancelled on Sunday in Chewelah. Concerts and trash pickup were delayed or cancelled in the Spokane area.

The longer people are exposed to pollutants from wood smoke, the higher the risk of developing smoke-related illnesses, reports CBS News reported. Short-term exposures to high smoke levels can lead to lung and heart problems in some people, especially if they are already susceptible to these diseases.

Longer-term exposure over a few days or weeks increases the risk and the chance of health impacts as your cumulative dose increases.

The air quality did improve to moderate on Tuesday, but smoke is forecasted to stick around until Thursday, the publication of this paper.

Free masks are being handed out at all Stevens County Libraries including the Chewelah Public Library.

Unhealthy air conditions hit western Washington on Monday and Tuesday, making the Seattle Mariners game look like it was being played in thick fog and prompting warnings from local agencies to stay indoors. Minor-league baseball games in Washington were also cancelled because of the smoke.

This is where Quartzite is supposed to be, but on Sunday, it was nothing more than a blank yellow canvas in the sky. (Brandon Hansen photo)

AIR QUALITY COMPARED TO ERUPTION OF MT. ST. HELENS
Many locals in Chewelah old enough to remember said that Sunday’s smoky air reminded them of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, except for the volcanic ash falling from the sky. The air quality in the Inland Northwest was the worst day recorded by local air monitors since the measuring equipment began use in 1999.

Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency spokeswoman Stephanie May said the eruption of Mt. St. Helens was likely worse in terms of air quality, but it’s impossible to tell, the Spokesman-Review reported, as equipment nowadays is much more accurate.

The Review also noted that on Monday, breathing in Spokane’s air was equal to smoking more than 13 cigarettes.

Quartzite Mountain emerged from the smoke on Monday but conditions were still bad in Stevens County and worse in Spokane. (Brandon Hansen photo)

BOYDS FIRE GETTING MORE CONTAINED
Monday’s report on the Boyds Fire, located three miles west of Kettle Falls, has the fire at 3,278 acres burned and 49 percent is contained. Firefighters have lined much of the east side of the fire and continue burnout operations on the west side. To many people in the area, however, they’re not sitting comfortable yet.

All areas from Boulder Creek Road south to Sherman Homes Road are still at a level 2 evacuation notice. This means the public should be prepared to leave at any moment.

Highway 20 and Highway 395 remain open to the public but drivers are urged to use caution around the fire area.

Chewelah was a city in the smoke on Monday and conditions got better on Tuesday, but this smoke is expected until Thursday. (Brandon Hansen photo)

ACCOUNTS SET UP TO HELP FIRE VICTIMS
Several homes have been burned in the Boyds Fire, while over a hundred people evacuated the area for a number of days. While many people got to return to their homes, some are not so lucky. Many groups are waiting to hear if any other homes have been lost, since this is still an active incident presenting challenges for firefighters and EMS.

Those so far known to have lost their homes have some online fundraisers set up to help deal with the loss.

A fund for Tracy Maniglia can be found at gofundme.com/tracy-maniglia-fire-recovery

A fund for Lee Anne Kifer, a medical professional and teacher at WSU can be found at gofundme.com/lee-anne-kifer-fire-recovery

The Pickett Family also lost their home in the blaze and people can donate online to gofundme.com/family-lost-everything-in-wildfire?member=603850

There is also a Banner Bank account set up to the benefit the Boyds Fire victims. People can go to any location and specify the people they’d like to help or just have it go into a general fund for all victims.

Gift cards and checks can be dropped off at the Habitat for Humanity store in Colville as well. Please make these out directly to the individuals specified.

Providence Mount Carmel Hospital has organized a fundraiser for Lee Ann Kifer as well. Contact Glen Potter at the hospital for information.

Here is the view on Sand Canyon Road in Chewelah on Sunday. Air quality hit hazardous conditions on that day before relenting on Monday and Tuesday. (K.S. Brooks photo)

HORNS MOUNTAIN FIRE GROWS, AS EXPECTED
The Horns Mountain Fire on the Stevens County/Canada border continued to grow, but within containment lines. The fire is now 3,135 acres with 2,562 of those acres in the US and 573 of those in Canada.

Incident Commander Brian Goff said, “Portions of the fire will look different today. We have the right people, the right equipment and the right leadership to contain this fire.”

Firefighters have tied in the lines with Canada on both the east and west sides of the fire, and will continue to secure them.

Firefighters will also work with heavy equipment to hold, improve and secure lines to prepare for burnout operations.

FIREBOSS PILOT SURVIVES PLANE CRASH LAST WEEK IN STEVENS COUNTY
After the engine on his Fire Boss AT-802 plane failed 500-feet up, 43-year-old pilot David Fennen had to act quickly. With about 15 seconds to realize what was going on, he spotted a logging road and committed to landing there.

According to The Spokesman-Review, the plane tumbled down to the ground and broke Fennen’s ribs, bruising a lung. He survived, got out of the wreckage and waved to pilots circling overhead.

Fennen had been helping fight the Horns Mountain fire and was able to flag down firefighters driving nearby.

Fire Bosses are known for their reliability so the failure of the single engine airplane was a rarity. It had operated less than 600 hours before the failure.