Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Smoky siege: A look back at the smoke storm of 2020

The record-shattering smoke storm of 2020 is now behind us. Rain clouds have replaced the choking fog of smoke that held Washington in a vice for more than a week, and the annual dread of late-summer wildfires appears to have eased. 

Before we get back to business as usual, however, we wanted to review what exactly happened in the first three weeks of September, what it did to all of us that were stuck breathing that toxic soup, and what we can learn from this smoke event to prepare us for future summers when the smoke returns.

Prelude

For most of the summer of 2020, the Pacific Northwest enjoyed a mild wildfire season. The major impacts to air quality were a few fast-burning range fires near Yakima and Mattawa.

In the late August and early September, increasingly hot and dry conditions set the stage for what was to come. As Labor Day weekend arrived, so did the fires. The tiny town of Malden near Pullman was nearly destroyed by a fast-moving blaze, and a 1-year-old child died as his parents fled the Cold Springs Fire outside of Omak. 

On Labor Day, Sept. 7, the typical onshore flow of wind and weather systems moving in from the ocean shifted as high pressure built up over the interior northwest and low pressure set up along the coast. Since winds blow from high pressure toward low pressure areas, they began to blow from the east and strengthened quickly. 

In Washington, winds up to 50 miles per hour pushed smoke from the fires to the east across the mountains and into the cities of the Puget Sound region. Ash fell around Seattle, and the air took on the smell of a campfire.


On Sept. 8, air quality declined to unhealthy levels in the Puget Sound region. South of Seattle, a brush fire leapt up in the Tacoma suburb of Bonney Lake, destroying two homes and forcing thousands of residents to evacuate.

The situation in Oregon was much more dire. Wildfires exploded in southern, central and northern Oregon, forced the evacuation of entire cities, ultimately burning up to the edges of the Portland suburbs as nearly a million acres of forest and hundreds of homes succumbed to the flames.

A “super massive” plume

Smoke from these fires settled off of the Oregon coast, where the cool waters finally calmed the winds. Over the week of Sept. 6, the smoke built up into a super-massive plume – a ghostly echo as large as the state that spawned it.


At the Washington Department of Ecology, smoke forecasters watched this plume build with unease. Off the coast, the choking cloud of smoke posed little danger to Washington communities, and lighter winds were forecast with the potential to blow the smoke north, skirting the Washington coast and heading into Canada.

If the typical onshore flow were to return, however, the smoke would circle around the Olympic Mountains and crash into Seattle, threatening more than 4 million people in the city’s metropolitan area.

On Thursday, Sept. 10, the hope that Washington would dodge the bullet faded. Winds shifted to southwest, pushing the smoke toward western Washington.

The heat from wildfires can drive smoke high into the atmosphere, where winds can pick that smoke up and drive it hundreds or thousands of miles. That wasn’t the case this time. Cooler temperatures the night of Sept. 10 allowed the smoke to mix down to ground level, and western Washington awoke on Friday, Sept. 11, to ashen skies.

The super massive plume continued to creep across Washington through the weekend, subjecting first central and then eastern Washington to the thick smoke. Had the smoke simply continued to blow eastward, however, it would have gradually cleared out and allowed air quality to recover.

That didn’t happen.

Forecasting smoke is not like conventional weather forecasting. Wildfires can grow suddenly, unleashing fresh torrents of smoke and ash. New fires can pop up, or firefighters can gain or lose ground on existing fires. Smoke rises and falls during the day, driven by wind and temperature changes.

Because of these complexities, the same sort of sophisticated computer model that confidently predicts rain a week ahead of time struggles to accurately forecast smoke more than a day or two out. Smoke forecasters use their personal expertise to try to out-guess the computer models, but they, too, are sometimes caught off guard as wind and weather combine to frustrate their expectations.

“What do you do when the atmosphere doesn’t deliver what you ordered?” asked Dr. Ranil Dhammapala, an atmospheric scientist and smoke forecaster with Ecology. “You try to diagnose the problem, take into consideration the lessons learned and issue an updated forecast.

“We look at multiple weather and smoke models, each with their own strengths and weaknesses,” Dhammapala said. “We also consider feedback from other forecasters, wildland fire managers and look at monitoring data continuously. Forecasts are constantly recalibrated as new information becomes available.”

The night of Sunday, Sept. 13, such a recalibration proved necessary. The wind working to clear the plume faltered. A new, weak front was forecast to continue the clear-out, but those winds instead sailed mostly overhead.

Why? With no wind and a thick blanket of smoke over the entire state, little sunlight reached the surface, meaning there was none of the usual daytime warming that produces evening breezes. Just as it does during wintertime temperature inversions, the smoke settled in the valleys and basins of Washington, forcing millions of residents to shelter inside.

A dark cloud

As that smoke settled, air quality grew worse and worse.

Between Saturday, Sept. 12 and Thursday, Sept. 17, every single air quality monitor in Washington state recorded levels of particulate pollution above the federal 24-hour standard.


Particulate pollution, especially the tiny particles known as PM2.5, pose a serious threat to human health. PM2.5 particles are 2.5 micrometers or smaller in size - so small that our bodies’ natural defenses don’t work against them. They lodge deep in our lungs and even get into our bloodstreams.

Short-term exposures to PM2.5 can irritate your eyes and throat, produce headaches, and leave you short of breath. For people who already suffer from a respiratory illness or heart disease, the effects are worse, and can be life-threatening.

“It’s very clear from research done here in Washington and in other places that more and more of the population suffers certain health problems when there’s a lot of wildfire smoke,” said Dr. Matt Kadlec, Ecology’s smoke toxicologist. “It’s common for people to have eye and respiratory tract irritation; stress; headaches; shortness of breath; and, among those who already have asthma, worsened symptoms. As smoke levels increase and last longer, respiratory and cardiovascular health risks increase, resulting in greater incidences of emergency department visits, hospital admissions, and even deaths.”

Washington is no stranger to wildfire smoke. The Carlton Complex Fire in 2014 burned more than a quarter-million acres and destroyed more than 350 homes in the Methow Valley. In 2017 and again in 2018, huge wildfires in British Columbia sent smoke southward, blanketing much of the state for weeks.

As bad as these smoke events were, they could not compare to September 2020.

Ecology scientist Dr. Beth Friedman looked at historical records going back to when the agency began tracking PM2.5 levels in the early 2000s. She found that more Washington cities were exposed to hazardous air quality – the highest category for air pollution – for longer than during any previous smoke event.

“This smoke event marks the most days statewide PM2.5 monitoring sites have recorded hazardous air quality going back to 2000, and the majority of the state experienced at least five consecutive days of very unhealthy or hazardous air quality,” Friedman said.


As the smoke lingered, hundreds of questions poured in to the Washington Smoke Information blog, where Dhammapala and fellow smoke forecaster Farren Herron-Thorpe tried to provide updated forecasts, explanations, and advice. More than 2.5 million people visited the smoke blog over the week, while another 2.6 million looked to Ecology’s air quality monitoring map for the latest conditions.

Light winds in the middle of the week momentarily cleared the smoke from a few spots on the coast, but then also brought a second wave of smoke from Oregon fires. 

When would it end?

Hope on the horizon

After the dashed hope of relief on Sept. 13, commenters on the smoke blog and social media were skeptical of forecasts. To Dhammapala, Herron-Thorpe and other forecasters around the state, however, the signs for optimism were clear: Another weather system was due to arrive on the Washington coast Thursday, Sept. 17. The front would bring rain and gradually push the smoke northeast.

This time, the front arrived right on schedule. Air quality monitoring stations on the Washington coast showed good air quality by late morning Thursday. Further inland, though, air quality remained in the very unhealthy category in the Puget Sound region, and hazardous in most of Eastern Washington.

Slowly, slowly, that began to change. Friday afternoon saw heavier rains and scattered thundershowers. All over western Washington, people’s moods seemed to lighten as the smoke lifted, even though it hovered around the unhealthy range much of the day.

By Saturday, western Washington was clear – air quality monitors showed nearly all green on the map. Eastern Washington and Spokane had to wait another day for relief as the storm swept the smoke away.

And, on Sept. 21, it was all just a memory.



The new normal?

Are smoke events like this the “new normal”? Do we need to prepare for weeks stuck inside every summer from now on? Is there anything we can do to prevent that?

The Magic 8-ball tells us that the future is uncertain. Climate researchers predict that the number of acres burned each year in the west will continue to rise, as warmer winters eat away at mountain snowpack, and hotter summers dry foliage more quickly, setting the stage for wildfire.

Those long-term trends don’t tell us about any particular fire season, though – after major smoke events in 2017 and 2018, 2019 was a very mild year. And the wildfire season of 2020 was unexceptional for most of the summer. Until our luck ran out.

Even when fires race across the west, that doesn’t mean the more heavily populated regions will be hit by smoke. The sequence of events chronicled above shows that several factors have to come together in the right sequence for smoke events of this magnitude. In 2020, strong east winds allowed a super-massive plume of smoke to accumulate offshore, but had the wind shift been followed by stronger on-shore flows, that reservoir would have quickly drained.

Still, three of the past four years have seen days or weeks of unhealthy air in Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver. Clearly, everyone in Washington needs to be prepared to protect themselves and their families when smoke arrives.

N95 masks – the most effective portable protection against PM2.5 – were hard to come by in this pandemic year. The simple cloth masks most Washingtonians wear to reduce the spread of the coronavirus provide little protection against the tiny particles.

Staying inside with the doors and windows closed is the best advice to reduce smoke exposure, but that’s a tall order when hazardous air quality goes on day after day. Making sure your air conditioner – for those fortunate enough to have it – or furnace is set to recirculate helps to keep smoke outside. A clean filter with a MERV rating above 11 will capture some of the particles that do get in, and can significantly improve indoor air quality as the air recirculates.

Tens of thousands of people watched Ecology’s “how-to” video showing a simple trick to strap a furnace filter to a box fan, offering an inexpensive way to create a clean air shelter.

2020 was a record-setter. Whether it is a harbinger of the future or an exceptional event remains to be seen. What 2020 has taught us, though, should be a call to action for everyone in Washington to be prepared for smoky skies and toxic air.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Phew, glad we're done with that. Now what's next?

No doubt everyone breathed easy yesterday when air quality in the whole state returned to Good. How long will it stay that way?

The map of monitors above shows Moderate or Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups air at several locations in Clark, Klickitat and southern Yakima counties. These are due to smoldering fires nearby. Even though fires are not puffing smoke like they were, low- buoyancy plumes are still draining some smoke into nearby cities. 

These kind of relatively low grade and relatively localized impacts will continue on and off through late Tuesday. "Low grade" compared to last week, that is. A weak system tonight won't help a whole lot but a strong, wet front early Wednesday will show the smoke who's boss and knock back the fires. Impressive 24-hour total precipitation ending 5PM Wednesday, as per the average of all ensemble models at UW.

Two weaker storm systems are expected Thursday and Friday, bringing more good news to smoke- weary Washingtonians. However calmer, dryer conditions under high pressure are possible Sunday onward so lets not pop the champagne cork yet. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Slow improvement still happening, plus more data showing WA population exposed to smoke

Forecast update

The Olympic Peninsula has pretty much cleared out now, and several Puget Sound area sites are trending downward. Rain is helping a bit, but the weakening inversion is helping most. Still on track to see mostly Good to Moderate air in western WA by tomorrow

Just for kicks, take a look at how some sites in the Olympic Peninsula responded yesterday when a low pressure system offshore initially helped ventilate the area and then dragged in smoke from Oregon fires. Who said smoke dynamics aren't complex!


Most monitors in eastern WA have been pretty static today (read: Unhealthy to Very Unhealthy air) but cross Cascade winds are starting to pick up and will eventually make their way into the Columbia Basin overnight. Eastern WA will start seeing seeing improvements on Saturday, reaching Good to Moderate by Sunday

We're nearly theredone for now. Don't be fatigued with the health precautions.

FYI, Ecology's air monitor in Yakima will be taken offline later today due to renovations happening at the host facility. But our staff proactively installed a temporary monitor in Union Gap, so there is no gap (no pun intended, honest!) in data coverage. Data should start appearing on the above map very soon. 

Population exposed to smoke (written by Ecology's Andrew Wineke)

As an agency dedicated to protecting air quality in our state, we’ve been trying to wrap our minds around not just what the numbers are this hour, but what the longer impacts of this kind of smoke storm may be. 

As we’ve moved from one record-poor air quality day to the next, we’ve shared some charts and analyses as we work through those questions. One important takeaway is that more Washington communities have been exposed to more hazardous levels of particulate pollution than we’ve ever seen since we began monitoring for PM2.5 (the most concerning type of particulate pollution found in wildfire smoke) back in the early 2000s.

Geographic extent is just one way to look at it, though. Sometimes, we have quite serious wildfires that don’t affect many people – either because of helpful weather patterns that blow the smoke away, or simply because they are burning in thinly populated regions.

Ecology researcher Beth Friedman looked at how many Washingtonians have been exposed to extended periods of unhealthy air, compared to other recent smoke events. Looking at the smoke exposures this way helps us contrast this year’s smoke storm with other major events like 2018, where smoke from Canadian wildfires bathed much of our state with a longer period of less-intense air pollution. 

So how does 2020 measure up when we account for populations in smoke- impacted areas? It may not surprise you that 2020 is a stinker: The number of people exposed to very unhealthy or worse air quality for a week or more is practically off the charts compared to 2018, 2017, or 2015. 

Or if you want to include the Unhealthy category in the comparison:

Clearly, this has been an incredibly bad week for Washington’s biggest cities – and it hasn’t been a walk in the park for our less populated areas, either. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The worst is behind us but it ain't over yet

So when will it be over?

Western WA: Early Saturday

Eastern WA: Saturday night

Why so long?

Western WA: Encouraging reductions at Olympic Peninsula monitors today and smaller improvements since yesterday in the Puget Sound lowlands. But strong winds off the Pacific are MIA so we have take what the lighter, shifty winds with a little rain (minions!) dish out. These minions are bringing disorganized, mixed results. Some smoke from Oregon fires are now being transported to western WA due to a wind shift, and even though a lot of that smoke is still aloft, it delays the already slow scrubbing process. Expecting Good to Moderate air in much of western WA by Saturday. 

However Clark county and the Columbia River Gorge might continue to see Very Unhealthy air through tomorrow at least because of the proximity to fires, and their relief will be later on Saturday.

Eastern WA: The last 3 runs of the more pessimistic models have continued to show good ventilation across the Columbia Basin on Saturday, so there is good confidence this wont be a busted forecast. This will not immediately erode away all the smoke stuck in valleys, so it needs some time to do it's thing. By Sunday morning most of the air should be Good to Moderate, except very close to fires. 

So how bad did it get?

Some of our readers asked to see a comparison of the # of successive days we were exposed to Very Unhealthy or Hazardous air. Dr Beth Friedman constructed the following plot to answer this question. 

All of 2020's days were from the last week or so. Sadly this wasn't the worst run of bad air for our friends in Chelan and Okanogan counties. 

Note: Monitors did not operate during all of the last 3 years are in the following 3 counties, and they are not included in the above plot. Their stretch of bad days was:

County

2017

2018

2019

Kittitas

3

No data

5

Klickitat

No data

No data

7

Thurston

No data

2

6

 But it is nearly over now and we don't see an immediate return to terrible air next week, so hang in there Washington!

P.S. Don't throw open your windows to air out the house the moment air quality improves. With these minions around, it is best to wait a few hours to be sure there is a sustained improvement. 

Understanding your Air Quality numbers

 As our coastal sites turn green this morning and we start to see hope for clean air for the rest of us later today and tomorrow, I thought I’d take a minute to clarify some common misconceptions regarding air quality numbers, where they come from and what they mean to you.  The two indices, Air Quality Index (AQI) vs. Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA), have created a lot of confusion.

Both AQI and WAQA are a unitless index calculated from a given concentration of air pollution. There are several different measured pollutants that affect air quality: PM2.5, ozone, NOx, CO, and SO2. PM2.5 is the most commonly measured and generally the one of most concern in Washington state, especially during wildfire smoke episodes. Although all these pollutants can affect AQI and WAQA values, I’m only going to focus on PM2.5 in this post.

State and Federal government run air quality maps (https://airnow.gov and https://enviwa.ecology.wa.gov/home/map) use the same air quality monitors and data to determine air quality in your area, but they use a different index to represent what that air quality means for your health.


So, why are there two different indices?  Although we assign breakpoints to the different categories, air quality is a spectrum. Every person will be affected by poor air quality differently.  These are general guidelines and the breakpoints are based on statistical assessments of how large numbers of people respond to varying levels of poor air quality. EPA studies have assigned risk at a certain point, while Washington state toxicology research found more protective levels would better serve our community. Looking at the breakpoints in this table, a PM2.5 concentration equal to 50 ug/m3 is considered unhealthy by WAQA standards, but unhealthy for sensitive groups when using the AQI scale. You are not a statistic and may be adversely affected at moderate levels, or perhaps you can go hiking without difficulty when conditions are unhealthy for sensitive groups.  For individual health concerns, your best bet is to consult your doctor.

AQI and WAQA health risk categories are based on a 24-hour exposure. The number you see on the map is updated hourly and represents the previous hourly average weighted by the air quality observed over several hours before. For example, if the air quality is green all morning and a nearby building catches on fire, smoke may affect the monitor for one or two hours at unhealthy (red) levels, before returning to green. The monitor may only show unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange) during those two hours since the exposure time was so short. As we observed at the beginning of this smoke event, heavy smoke rolled into some areas very quickly and air quality went from good to hazardous in 30 minutes. The map will not update that value until the hour of data collection is complete and may take another hour or two to catch up to instantaneous air quality. Both airnow and the state maps have the option to look at the actual hourly PM2.5 concentration from the previous hour. Those numbers will be the same on both maps.

The second question we often get is “who is more trustworthy? My air quality app, a third-party air quality reporting site, airnow, or the state air quality map”? It is important to understand all these sites are using the same data, if they are using actual air quality measurements. We don’t often know how third-party apps and websites calculate the AQI or interpret our data. In that sense, we consider EPA and the state map to be the gold standard as we are directly involved in collecting the data, making sure it’s valid, and reporting the concentrations.

 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Since this is the era of big data, lets compare our plight with those from far and wide

There are claims that we've been exposed to the worst air in the world. True? Fair comparison? Let's investigate that without belittling the terrible air quality conditions we've all had to endure for at least a week now.  

Here's a map of global air quality right now. It uses all available measurements worldwide and uses machine learning methods for spatially interpolation. US west coast is in baaad shape. Worst ranked cities right now are all in our neck of the woods. 


But to do a proper apples-to-apples comparison, we should compare our air during our "bad" season with the "bad" seasons in other places, not our bad against their better times. So lets leverage data from the US State Department's (DoS) air quality monitors around the world. These are easily obtained from one place and have a pretty good quality control regime. 

I've pooled PM2.5 data from the ten highest embassies which recorded data for at least two years anywhere between 2012- 2019. These are: New Delhi & Kolkata (India), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Kampala (Uganda), Kathmandu (Nepal), Jakarta (Indonesia), Chengdu & Shenyang (China), and Manama (Bahrain). You can see more details about their air quality here. "Normal" conditions were defined as the range between monthly lower and upper quartiles, since the median passes right in the middle of it. This is also known as the interquartile range, or IQR.

The above figure shows how air quality in Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver, Omak and Yakima have varied from 1 Jan- 15 Sept 2020, against the backdrop of IQRs at ten embassies. As can be seen, the overseas cities experience terribly compromised air quality primarily in the winter months. Right now is their "better" season. Even though we spiked right to the top of the AQI chart this week, bear in mind that:

  • All these overseas locations see concentrations that are higher than their own IQRs 25% of the time. Or put another way, they record even higher concentrations for 3 months of the year.
  • Our air will not remain this bad for several months. Most WA sites have experienced some improvement already and we're still on track to clear out in the Friday- Saturday timeframe. 
  • In spite of our wintertime temperature inversions and woodsmoke concerns, we're still in far better shape at that time of year.

Moral of the story: yes its bad here now. Many others have it worse for much longer. Folks who live in these environments and our diplomats serving there can offer us some coping tips. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Where's the smoke coming from now?

One key thing that we need to get smoke out of the air is to stop putting smoke into the air. So where is the smoke coming from now? Here in Washington we have some active fires although the map of Washington below is somewhat misleading as only a few of the fires shown are producing significant amounts of smoke. Three fires in the state were listed as showing moderate fire behavior today including the Big Hollow, the Inchelium Complex, and the Cold Springs fires. The others including Whitney, Fish, Apple Acres, Pearl Hill, Sumner Grade, Customs Road, Babb, Manning Road, and Evans Canyon are listed with minimal fire behavior so they are not smoke free but are unlikely to be making significant contributions to our impaired air quality outside their local area.

But to the south in Oregon there are numerous very large fires that are actively burning and sending smoke north to Washington. The northern group of fires including Riverside, Beachie Creek, and Lionshead, plus a few small ones nearby have a combined size of nearly 500,000 acres and are burning in heavy timber, slash, and brush fuel types. But that’s not all, numerous other large fires stretch the length of the Oregon Cascades and into California. Recent wind conditions have been moving smoke from these fires to the north and right towards us. The smoke layer has actually resulted in cooling many of the fires somewhat although as the smoke begins to thin out somewhat the fires are expected to become more active. More smoke, less fire, less smoke, more fire? It sounds like an unfortunate cycle. 


But on the horizon, arriving Thursday and lasting until Saturday, there is a prediction for enough rain in the Oregon Cascades to tamp these fires down considerably. Will they go out? No. And the farther south in Oregon you go, the less the rain will result in significant suppression of the fires. But the hard work of the firefighters combined with an assist from the weather gods should result in a pretty decent reduction in smoke production by later this week. Let’s hope so!


Is this the worst smoke we've had?

My colleague Dr. Beth Friedman crunched through statewide fine particle pollution data and prepared these plots comparing this year's smoke events against the last 5 years. The y- axis of the plot below shows the % of time all sites in the state recorded air quality in each of the stated categories. Monitor downtime and operating schedules have been accounted for. Only levels corresponding to an exceedence of the federal standard are shown for clarity.  

Washingtonians have not spent as much time breathing compromised air this year compared to 2017 and 2018. We had a late start to the wildfire season this year. However the amount of time we have spent breathing Hazardous air is unprecedented. Even if we look as far back as 2006, we don't see Hazardous conditions occurring for anywhere as long. 

Next question is where those conditions occurred (you guessed it: everywhere). Beth mapped out how different areas in WA compared against each other, by averaging concentrations from the highest 3 days for each site this September. The size of the circles is number of days greater than the federal standard. 


Seems like southern Yakima county followed by parts of Okanogan County had the most number of polluted days this month, but the worst air was recorded in the Columbia River Gorge and Clark County. Northwest and southeast WA had the "cleanest" and fewest bad days, respectively. 

Take home message: Not the longest we've had to endure crummy air, but this is the dirtiest air we've had to breath as a state. And the season isn't over yet. 

Overnight drizzle didn't move the smoke needle much.

Slight welcome drizzle overnight in parts of western WA and a marginal improvement in fine particle pollution levels along the coast. Not much, but we'll take what we get. Air is still Unhealthy or worse in most of the state. 

All the smoke models that ran overnight overdid the amount of clearing this weather system brought. According to them there should have been areas of Green and Yellow on the map by this morning. How we wish they were right! Therefore we're we're going for a persistence forecast. That is, expect the status quo to continue. Not pinning too much hopes on the weather system and slight rain expected tonight either. Substantial clearing is will have to wait until the Friday- Saturday timeframe. Here's the forecast for tomorrow. Nothing we havent already seen. 


Later today we will provide some data analysis comparing this smoke season to past years. If our readers would like to see informative data products, please let us know and we will try, within reason, to prepare the most relevant plots/ tables. A friend of mine wanted me to issue a hyper-local, personalized forecast showing how his house will have clean air while everyone else had to endure hazardous conditions. I said no. Same goes for data products. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Atmosphere is not delivering what we ordered

Sad to say, the clearing that should have been here by now is not only tardy but is poofing out as a lackluster weather feature that won't do much for us. The "cleanest" air in the state right now is Unhealthy air, whereas the model's advertised menu said we should have been seeing substantial improvements along the coast this morning. 

Updated projection

Not much in terms of weather to change the status quo a whole lot. See the forecast map for expected conditions in your area. To add to our woes, light southerly winds will continue for another day at least, dragging more smoke directly from Oregon fires northward along the I-5 corridor. So even if the ubiquitous smoke pool from offshore starts to erode a bit, a replacement is en route. 

Wanna get geeky and figure out what went wrong?

Many of us had relied on the HRRR- smoke model for several reasons. The University of Washington runs a suite of weather models which all have different physics options, so as to get a handle on uncertainty. One of the ensemble members is run with the same physics options as the HRRR. The plot below shows what yesterday's UW model runs thought ventilation indices along the WA coast would be like. The HRRR (light green trace) was in fact one of the most optimistic, showing about twice as much clearing as the mean of all other models. So today's forecast leans closer to the UW WRF model, which is closer to the ensemble mean.


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Where are you when we need you most, O clean marine air?

"I'm already there. Take a look around. I'm the shadow on the ground". 

OK that doesn't help. But its true. Fog around parts of the Puget Sound confirm that marine air did get through the Chehalis gap overnight. The trouble is there's still plenty of smoke over the coastal waters which the marine air is dragging along with it. But this morning's satellite images show where the silver lining is, and how the vertical smoke column over WA is thinning. 



Ground level smoke is not going to erode as fast as we'd like, however. It will be Monday before much of western WA and the central and northcentral foothills of the Cascades see substantial relief. For far eastern WA, plan for little relief before Tuesday. I wish I had better news for areas around the Columbia River Gorge that will be directly downwind of some monstrous Oregon fires. 

Check the forecast map and plan accordingly. As has been the case since Friday, our best advice is to remain indoors and hunker down. 

Some of Ecology's monitors in eastern WA are not reporting data to the map above because the high readings are being automatically invalidated ("nah, that's erroneous data, no way it can be so high --> trash & blacklist!"). We've just convinced the algorithm to come to terms with the bitter truth and these data should start to appear on the above map shortly. Ecology's monitoring data dotmap has been current, however. 

An aside: I've received questions from folks who're wondering why Ecology's map shows Good air quality in some areas, when everything else nearby is crummy. Thats because the default view of the map shows all pollutants being monitored, not just fine particle pollution (PM2.5, aka "smoke"). Ozone and sulfur dioxide levels are low, so sites monitoring just these pollutants show up as Good. Click on the "PM2.5" tab to filter these out. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Gasp! How much longer???

Quick answers: at least another day and a half in Western WA. 2-3 days in eastern WA.

Gradual clearing will commence on the WA coast on Sunday from west to east, and it will be Monday before that pushes across the state. For western WA, this means we're close to the peak of the episode, but much of eastern WA will deteriorate further today before it starts to get better. The size of the Oregon smoke plumes parked offshore is so "super-massive", and the fires themselves are very smoky, so smoke will continue to pour into the state for a while to come. And there are also several fires within WA to contend with.

We've received an overwhelming number of public queries on the blog from concerned citizens and kindly ask that folks don't take offense if we missed responding to you individually. 

Answers to most commonly raised questions

  • There are no pockets of clean air to retreat to this weekend. Your favorite campground or hiking trail isn't going to be magically shielded from smoke, no matter what the elevation (except perhaps subsurface caves... but I digress). Here's the latest satellite picture- that's all smoke over the state, very little clouds. See what I mean? 


  • Please use this forecast map to self- serve. Forecasts beyond two- three days are less certain
  • Resources to protect your health during these events can be found here. Best advice at this time is stay indoors. 


Friday, September 11, 2020

Statewide Air Quality Alert Through Weekend

The Department of Ecology issued a statewide air quality alert yesterday, which continues through the weekend.  Smoke from many fires across the region is impacting our state.  Please keep in mind we are unable to answer the large volume of questions posted in the comments on this blog, but will do our best.  Forecast information for your region is available on the Smoke Forecast Map. The forecast map attempts to predict a 24-hour daily average, but only for locations that have a regional monitor.  Air quality monitor maps are the best source for assessing current conditions (e.g. the map at the top of this blog, EPA's AirNow page, or the Ecology WAQA page). With such a large area experiencing poor air quality, it's best for people to stay indoors.  See yesterday's blog post Wildfire Smoke & COVID-19 for information on how to protect your health.

Calmer winds and hazy skies helped to keep large fire growth moderated yesterday and allowed for fire-fighting progress in Washington.  However, the Big Hollow fire in Southwest Washington still has active fire behavior with no containment. 

Today's GOES image (below) shows that the extent of smoke currently covers most of Western Washington and parts of Central Washington.  Smoke is expected to continue its path across the state, impacting Eastern Washington later today.  Overall, air quality is expected to slowly start getting better, from West to East, on Sunday. 

    GOES Image (Sept 11, 9 am)


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Wildfire Smoke & COVID-19: A Bad Combination for Health

The active wildfires in our state present many dangers, including the impact wildfire smoke has on our health. The smoke produced by wildfires can also be dangerous to you and your family, even when you don’t live near the wildfire.   

Breathing in wildfire smoke can cause symptoms that are relatively minor, such as eye, nose, and throat irritation, and also more dangerous symptoms like as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. We are especially concerned this year with COVID-19 because both impact our respiratory and immune systems and some of the symptoms are the same, like coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. If you have COVID-19, breathing in smoke may make your symptoms worse. Smoke can make you more susceptible to respiratory infections, like COVID-19. Some people most vulnerable to wildfire smoke, like those over 65 or with pre-existing conditions, are also those most at risk for serious impacts from COVID-19.

There were already limited ways to protect ourselves from wildfire smoke, and COVID-19 makes it even more challenging.

Here are steps you can take now to protect your health: 

  • Stay informed about current and forecasted air quality here on the blog and your local clean air agency’s website.
  • Reduce outdoor physical activity
  • Stay indoors when it’s smoky and keep indoor air clean
    • Close your windows and doors to reduce intake of smoke. However, ventilation is good for helping prevent COVID-19, so when air quality is good, open them to get fresh air and reduce potential viral load.
    • Improve filtration of indoor air in your home and create a clean air room where you spend most of your time. Making your own box fan filter can be a less expensive option to filter air and improve indoor air quality in a single room.  Filtering indoor air is an effective way to reduce fine particles from wildfire smoke. It can also provide some protection from COVID-19, but this alone is not enough to protect you from COVID-19.
    • Avoid burning candles or incense, smoking inside, frying or broiling, or vacuuming (unless your vacuum has a HEPA filter).
  • Wear your cloth face covering to slow the spread of COVID-19. While cloth face coverings may help a small amount with smoke, they won’t filter out the fine particles or hazardous gasses.
    • N95 respirators, if fitted and worn properly, can reduce exposure to wildfire smoke, but as the supply remains limited, these need to be reserved for workers that are required to wear them for their job.

For more information visit the WA DOH Smoke from Fires webpage.

"Super Massive" smoke plume hovering menacingly over southwest WA, biding its time

The "super massive" pall of smoke referenced in the earlier blog post this morning has only moved a little. Air quality in the Vancouver, WA area has begun deteriorating while the rest of southwest WA is "enjoying" mostly Moderate air quality and a little relief from the heat as the smoke filters out the sunshine. 

We have been responding to queries from many concerned citizens, about expected air quality in different areas and impacts on outdoor activities, and are being overwhelmed with requests for personalized forecasts. We'll do what we can, but here's a map of what Friday will bring. Saturday will be worse for most areas, with few clean air getaways possible. "Clean air" will become a relative term for most of this weekend. More details on that tomorrow. 


You can see the latest forecast here. It will be updated daily. This is to be used as a general guideline only, not for dissecting with surgical precision the differences in air quality on one street and the next. 


Smoke Alert!

There is a super-massive body of smoke moving over Southwestern Washington.  This smoke from Oregon and California is expected to impact Western Washington, the Columbia Basin, and even Spokane as it moves overhead.  Not much smoke has mixed down to the surface yet, but smoke forecasts show Unhealthy or worse levels starting tonight on the Peninsula and then through the I-5 Corridor. The Columbia River Gorge region is expected to be Unhealthy or worse tomorrow morning.  Smoke continues to be a problem in Central Washington and in the north Cascades as well because of our own fires.  Look for a more detailed forecast this afternoon.

    GOES Image (Sept 10, 9 am)


 

EPA Map of Air Quality, Smoke, and Fire Locations (Sept 10, 9 am)


Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Statewide Smoke Update

Poor air quality has persisted for many Washington residents today as fires continue to produce significant smoke across the region.   The EPA Fire and Smoke Map (shown below) paints a stark picture of air quality and smoke in the region, with smoke impacts being felt over most of the state. Air quality is Moderate to Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups across most of the state, with Unhealthy or worse conditions in parts of Central Washington. See the Dept. of Ecology Smoke Forecast Map for predictions of air quality in your specific region for today and tomorrow.  See the Health Information section of this blog for tips on masks and how to keep the air in your home clean.


                          Air Quality, Smoke, and Fires from EPA - Sept 9, 2020 (10 am PDT) 

Fire perimeters expanded and threatened several communities yesterday. The Cold Springs (Central WA), Pearl Hill (Central WA), Lionshead (OR) and Beachie Creek (OR) fires experienced large growth. Multiple fire fighting teams were assigned to new incidents.  The Big Hollow fire in Skamania county also exhibited extreme fire behavior.  The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center has more detailed information on large fire activity.

Critical fire weather conditions will persist in Western Washington today and tomorrow. The breezy east winds have eased some but it will be hot and dry. Fires will remain active and could grow rapidly. Expect winds to transition to a more typical onshore flow on Friday which will help to slow the fire activity down.  Smoke is impacting the region from multiple locations.  Air quality is expected to continue as-is and get worse Thursday night into Friday, especially in Southwest Washington and the Olympic Peninsula, as smoke from Oregon and California is expected to creep north. See the widespread thick smoke over the Pacific in today's GOES Imagery (shown below).

Central and Eastern Washington will experience warm/dry weather with less winds today and tomorrow. Smoke from fires will continue to heavily impact the Okanogan and Methow Valleys, the East Slopes of the Cascades, and portions of Ferry county. Patchy smoke will also be prevalent around the Columbia Basin and the Spokane area.  Air quality will remain poor as light winds will allow smoke to build near the ongoing fires. However, light winds will be beneficial for fire fighting efforts and we hope there could be reduced fire growth in the region. 


                         GOES Image for Sept 9, 2020 (10 am PDT) 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Statewide Smoke Update

The frontal system and high winds that screamed through Washington yesterday caught hold of many seemingly human-caused ignitions starts.  It was a historically tragic day of significant fire growth that lead to multiple evacuations, homes and businesses lost, dust storms, traffic accidents, roads closed, and thick smoky air across large parts of the state.   Fires in Central WA made large runs, traveling many miles, with more land burned than what we normally see in an entire year.

Heavy smoke is still being generated from the Inchelium and Cold Springs / Pearl Hill fires.  Communities in Okanogan and bordering counties (Chelan, Ferry, Douglas) are going to continue to see fire and smoke for the foreseeable future.  As winds push through the Columbia Basin, some of that smoke will also travel southwest and intermittently send smoke to Central WA.

A lot of the smoke in Western and Central WA cleared out this morning, but calmer winds in the the northern half of Washington haven't allowed the air to clear.  There is still Moderate to Unhealthy air being monitored from Tacoma to Bellingham and out to the peninsula.  Smoke can be seen in many mountain valleys and this could stick around for the day, sloshing around the greater Puget Sound region and likely heading south back towards Tacoma/Olympia.  There are also many new fires being detected today in Western Washington.  This NWCG link shows fire detects over the past day and new emerging fire locations. 

Map of Air Quality and Smoke from Fires (Sept 8, 2020 @ 1 pm)

Today's animated GOES imagery shows new fire activity in Skamania county from the Big Hollow fire (over 6,000 acres), which is sending a thick smoke plume across SouthWest Washington and NW Oregon.  This fire will likely continue to send smoke west today and tomorrow and could travel north to Olympia/Tacoma along with Oregon smoke on Thursday. Oregon has some very large fires, with the Lionshead and Beachie Creek pouring thick smoke into the air.  SouthWestern Washington should expect smoke impacts from Oregon starting Thursday.

GOES Image of Smoke from Fires (Sept 8, 2020 @ 1 pm)

Many people are wondering where to go to escape the smoke, but conditions are dynamic and changing quickly, so most communities should be prepared to stay indoors.  There are several things you can do to keep your home's air quality smoke free, discussed on the Health Information page of this blog.

Western Washington is under a Red Flag Warning for high winds and fire danger!  Please do your part to keep fire off the ground!  RED FLAG WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 11 PM PDT THURSDAY FOR GUSTY WINDS AND LOW HUMIDITY, AS WELL AS HOT, DRY, AND UNSTABLE CONDITIONS FOR FIRE WEATHER ZONES.


Monday, September 7, 2020

Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke

Wildfire smoke can be unhealthy to breathe, especially for vulnerable people such as those with existing heart or lung disease, children, older adults, and pregnant women. Always pay attention to how the smoke is making you feel and check with your doctor right away for help managing symptoms or any specific concerns.

No Cost Ways to Lower Smoke Exposure

1.       Know your air quality. Smoke levels can change a lot during the day so watch for periods of cleaner air to run errands, exercise, or do outdoor chores. Look for opportunities to open windows and doors to let cleaner air into your home if smoke clears.

·         Go online to track fires and smoke here: https://fire.airnow.gov/

·         Have a smartphone? Download the Smoke Sense App. https://www.epa.gov/air-research/smoke-sense-study-citizen-science-project-using-mobile-app

·         Learn the colors of the AQI (air quality index) and what they mean for actions you can take to protect your health. See the AQI table below.

2.       Stay inside with doors and windows closed when it’s smoky. Use towels to block air flow if smoke is coming in through gaps in window or door frames. But don’t overheat! Open doors and windows if you must to cool down. Watch for times when smoke may clear and open windows and doors to clear out smoke that has gotten inside.

3.       Reduce indoor pollution you can control. Reduce or eliminate any type of smoking, no vacuuming, no candles, no incense, no aerosol sprays. Reduce or eliminate use of gas, propane, or woodburning stoves for heat. Do not fry or broil meat.

4.       Take it easy. Smoky air is not good for vigorous activities. Put off chopping wood, mowing the lawn, or going for a run. Try to keep children and pets quiet too.

5.       Set air to recirculate on your HVAC or window air conditioner if you have one.

6.       Reduce smoke in your vehicle if you’re out in your car by closing the windows and vents and running the air conditioner on recirculate.

Low to Medium Cost Ways to Lower Smoke Exposure

1.       Leave the smoky area for a few hours or a few days if you cannot keep the air in your home clean or cool. Check the AirNow forecast page for your area to see if there is somewhere you can go to get a break from the smoke. www.airnow.gov

2.       Upgrade your HVAC filters. If you have an HVAC system, upgrade the filters to a “MERV 13” or higher and run the system on recirculate. Filters will need to be changed more often when it’s smoky. Consult the manufacturer’s instructions or an HVAC system specialist.

3.       Buy a HEPA portable air cleaner. For about $100-$300 you can purchase a HEPA portable air cleaner and use it to clean the air in a room in your home (often a bedroom). See more information here including some recommendations on specific cleaners to buy: https://www.montanawildfiresmoke.org/hepa-filters.html

4.       Build a simple box fan filter. For about $40-$50 you can build an air filter by attaching a 20”x20” furnace filter to a 20” box fan (don’t run this unattended or at night). See instructions here: https://www.montanawildfiresmoke.org/diy-fan-filter.html