Wildfires lead to hazardous air conditions

Wildfires lead to hazardous air conditions
Wildfire smoke conceals Icicle Ridge overlooking the city of Leavenworth in central Washington. Photo: TJ Martinell

Washington’s wildfire season has ramped up with lighting strikes, hot temperatures and significant drought causing dozens of fires over the weekend. The conditions have also led to heavy smoke permeating the sky across the state and degrading the air quality.

In some communities like Plain in central Washington, the state Department of Ecology has declared hazardous levels of smoke, and the National Weather Service has advised residents in central and eastern Washington to limit their time spent outdoors.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has authorized grants to help cover the cost of three state wildfires, including one that consumed 70,000 acres in a day and forced a town to evacuate.

When Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for wildfires on July 31, Washington firefighters had fought 891 fires that had burned 113,670 acres. Two weeks later, those numbers have increased to 1,077 wildfires and 276,229 acres burned. On public lands managed by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the season has disproportionately hit eastern Washington; 33,639 acres of 34,483 acres have been east of the Cascades.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region also has its hands full. As of Tuesday, it has 213 crews and a total of 8,246 firefighters contending with 19 large wildfires in both Oregon and Washington.

DNR Spokesperson Joe Smillie wrote in an email most of the wildfires have been caused by “sustained dryness, and temperatures that have regularly topped 100 degrees on the east side.”

He added that “the biggest chunk of the increase actually came Saturday, when we had those lightning storms sweep through with super strong winds.”

Within the day, 60 new wildfires appeared, and the Grass Valley Fire near the town of Grand Coulee spread to around 70,000 acres in less than 24 hours, prompting an evacuation notice for the town residents.

As of Tuesday, Ecology reports that only a handful of areas in the state such as Enumclaw, Issaquah and Yelm have healthy air quality levels. In central Washington, four areas have hazardous air quality levels. Although state wildfires share some blame, the poor air quality is also due to smoke moving south from Canada.

An interagency site attributes most of the smoke to a handful of wildfires, including the Cougar Creek Fire and the Crescent Mountain and McLeod fires. The site anticipates air conditions will improve later this week.

The Cougar Creek Fire has burned more than 31,000 acres and is only five percent contained, while the Crescent Mountain Fire has consumed 16,300 acres. A quarter of that fire is contained. The McLeod has burned almost 900 acres, while Boyd has burned 3,000 acres and had 150 personnel at the scene.

Since Inslee’s declaration, fire suppression efforts have included National Guardsmen, 200 of which were recently deployed to assist DNR at Boyd, Cougar Creek and other fires around the state.

Last year’s wildfire season involved heavy smoke throughout the state, causing some concern among winemakers that the reduced air quality might affect their grapes.

The long-term outlook suggests prolonged opportunity for new wildfires. The Predictive Services National Interagency Fire Center monthly outlook reports most of the Pacific Northwest is “abnormally dry with severe drought covering most of Oregon.” The outlook anticipates persistent drought conditions through August for both Washington and Oregon and above normal fire potential through September.

The seven-day outlook has a high risk for wildfire in southeast Washington.

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