Friday, July 31, 2020

Light smoke above most of the state, gradually clearing through Saturday

Light winds are keeping smoke from multiple sources swirling over much of the state, with most of the smoke staying aloft. The July Complex fires in northern CA are sending smoke our way, as are smaller local and regional fires. While there has been some Siberian smoke visible on satellites over Alaska & British Columbia, there is no evidence to suggest any of that has dropped down into Washington.

On-shore winds will gradually pick up today and start the slow process of flushing out smoke (read: push it into Idaho, Montana and BC). But that flushing process is fraught with its own dangers as reflected by the Red Flag Warning issued by the National Weather Service in Spokane.

The air quality forecast map shows conditions in eastern WA will be no worse than Moderate through Saturday, although areas very close to fires may see poorer air.

We will start the following week on a clean slate but fire weather concerns return on Monday despite a  slight cool down. Not the time to let our guard down.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

2020 wildfire smoke has arrived, and we have a new forecast map to keep y'all apprised

Wildfire smoke is making a gentle, phased entry into Washington. Main culprit today is smoke from the Caldwell fire near Lava Beds National Monument in northern California, which is starting to drift over southeastern Washington in light amounts today. This is expected to continue through tomorrow at least, causing areas of Moderate air.

This is all reflected on our new wildfire smoke forecast map, which recently went live on Ecology's air monitoring webpage.

The above tool offers interactive forecasts of daily average smoke conditions for today and tomorrow across the state. Feel free to use the Search feature, pan and zoom around to locate areas of interest. Plans are underway to reflect the same forecast on the map above this blog. Curious about how it all works? Click here.

Conditions in eastern WA are also ripe for new fire starts and their rapid spread this week. The public is highly encouraged to exercise utmost caution to prevent new fires.

And lastly, typical COVID face masks do not offer protection from wildfire smoke. N95 masks are required for that, and those maybe in short supply. So lets do our due diligence and not invite nature to come at us with a two-pronged pitchfork.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Wildfire Smoke During COVID-19

Breathing in wildfire smoke by itself can cause anywhere from minor symptoms, such as eye, nose, and throat irritation, to more dangerous symptoms like wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and worsening existing chronic conditions. With the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be more cause for concern this season.

What are the health impacts of COVID-19 overlapping with wildfire smoke?

Both wildfire smoke and COVID-19 impact our respiratory and immune systems. If you already have COVID-19, breathing in wildfire smoke may make your symptoms worse. If you don’t have COVID-19, it may make you more likely to get it. People most vulnerable to wildfire smoke, like those over 65 or with pre-existing conditions, are also those most at risk for COVID-19.

How will this season be different?

When you have poor air quality in your home this year, it might not be safe to seek cleaner and cooler indoor air at public spaces, such as libraries or malls. Check in advance to see if these places are open and be prepared for lower capacity, to physically distance, and wear a cloth face covering. If you are considering leaving the area to get relief from smoke, consider the COVID-19 restrictions in the county you are traveling to and the people you are visiting. This is especially important if they are more sensitive to COVID-19.

While still in short supply, N95 respirators should continue to be reserved for those required to wear them for their job. It is important to wear your cloth face covering to slow the spread of COVID-19, but they won’t provide much protection from breathing in wildfire smoke.

With additional limitations this season, it will be best to stay at home and keep your indoor air clean. Because of impacts to the supply chain, it may take longer to receive supplies from retailers, so start preparing your home now.

Keeping wildfire smoke out and indoor air clean in your home

Take steps to improve filtration of indoor air and create a clean air room. Filtrating indoor air will reduce fine particles (PM 2.5) from wildfire smoke and provide some protection from COVID-19, but this alone is not enough to protect you from COVID-19.

When the air quality is poor, you will need to take additional steps to keep indoor air clean.

  • Close your windows and doors when it is smoky outside. Ventilation is good for helping prevent COVID-19, so when air quality is good, open them to get fresh air to reduce smoke levels and viral load. 
  • Don’t add to indoor air pollution by avoiding burning candles or incense, smoking inside, or vacuuming (unless your vacuum has a HEPA filter).

As we learn more about the impacts of COVID-19 and wildfire smoke, information will become available here and on the Washington State Department of Health’s Smoke from Fires webpage.  

Monday, June 15, 2020

It's time to get "Smoke Ready"

Smoke Ready Week 2020

Now's the perfect time to get prepared for potential smoke from wildfire in 2020. As we in the Northwest know, wildfire smoke lingering in the air makes it hard to breathe and can cause or worsen health problems. Agencies throughout Washington have partnered to promote Smoke Ready Week, June 15-19. You'll find helpful tips to lessen the impact of smoke at Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Health, Spokane Clean Air Agency, the Colville Tribe, and others using the hashtag #SmokeReady2020. Be sure to check out the smoke blogs of our neighbors in Idaho and Oregon too.

Here's our 10 Tips for planning ahead to protect you and your family from smoke. Also view EPA's fact sheet, Prepare for Fire Season, for a checklist of steps to take right now.

Cool new smoke forecasting tool coming

Stay tuned for Dr. Ranil's new wildfire smoke forecasting tool. It adds a layer to the Washington state map on this blog and gives the color-coded AQI forecast for every region in Washington. It's in the final stages of development right now. We can't wait to roll it out and share it with you!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Information: See you in Summer 2020

Just when it was looking like our smoke season was starting early, Mother Nature nipped it in the bud and we had a fairly mild 2019 for wildfire smoke, especially compared to the last few years. Shew! It was nice to get a breather - literally!

In his last post, Ranil explains the data and science-y stuff around our low-smoke year.

As much as we wish to never have another wildfire season, we’re prepared to return to this blog around July 2020 with smoke information, current conditions, forecasts, health tips, and more. 

In the meantime, here’s information and contacts for your off-season inquiries.

Current air quality conditions

The air monitoring map on this blog displays current data and is active all year long. Mobile users can find it here. For additional monitors, view the Monitoring & Forecasting tab.

Local air quality contacts

Have questions about smoke or air quality issues today? Contact your local clean air agency. Phone numbers, websites, and a printable map are available here. Also view the Local Information tab for additional county contacts including local health, emergency management, and sheriff’s offices. For emergencies, please call 911.

Current fires on the map

If you see fires on the monitoring map during the off-season, those are likely silvicultural prescribed fires. View a daily list of prescribed burn details from the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Be prepared for next wildfire season 

Get a jump on next wildfire season by being #SmokeReady. Here's 10 Tips for planning ahead to protect you and your family from smoke. Also view EPA's fact sheet "Prepare for Fire Season" for a checklist of steps to do now.

Many thanks

This blog is due to great partnerships between several Washington agencies and federal teams. We are grateful for their commitment and dedication to our Washington communities. We also thank you for your questions and comments, and for sharing this information with your neighbors. 

Have a wonderful winter and spring in our beautiful state of Washington. Breathe well.

Friday, August 30, 2019

This smoke season's anomalies explained, with a Labor day smoke forecast tacked on

Easy part first:

Western WA Labor day weekend smoke forecast
After a welcome dousing of rain yesterday and consistent on- shore flow this weekend, the fire risk will remain low. No major smoke impacts expected over the Labor day weekend so go ahead & enjoy the Good air, but please be diligent and prevent new fires. Too many reports of abandoned campfires, dragging chains and discarded cigarettes starting new fires.

Eastern WA smoke forecast
Two issues worth mentioning, although one of them may not amount to much:

  1. Some spotty smoke is present around Asotin County, likely from the Cow Fire in Oregon, and the area is likely to see intermittent Moderate air over the next few days. 
  2. All the smoke models are assuming that a few fires in the Okanogan- Wenatchee National Forest are actively pumping out smoke and they maybe right to some extent, but are likely overstating the magnitude. Haven't seen any measurable smoke impacts at Leavenworth, Chelan, the Methow Valley or Stehekin as yet and don't expect area air quality to degrade beyond Moderate on occasion.

Other than that, we're mostly expecting Good air provided there are no new fires. Warmer, dryer conditions are predicted to return mid week, reminding us that the fire season is not over yet.

WZUP with this wildfire smoke season?

Here's an animation showing how the worst air quality days in the last 2 wildfire seasons compared with this year. While 2019's worst day thus far wasn't even close to those of the previous two anomalously smoky years, it occurred so early in the season (May 31) and got us all worried about what might transpire. More so since the seasonal outlook available at that time called for a slightly warmer-than-normal and dryer-than-normal summer.
Thankfully, that smoky scenario hasn't played out this year. The chances of the smoke monster making a comeback are diminishing as the sun becomes more preoccupied with baking the southern hemisphere.

The # of wildfires burned by today in 2019 is lower than the low- smoke years of 2013 & 2016. How nice to be lagging behind!

# of fires nationwide
2019 (1/1/19 - 8/29/19)
2018 (1/1/18 - 8/29/18)
2017 (1/1/17 - 8/29/17)
2016 (1/1/16 - 8/29/16)
2015 (1/1/15 - 8/29/15)
2014 (1/1/14 - 8/30/14)
2013 (1/1/13 - 8/30/13)
Data source: National Interagency Fire Center

Here are some of the main meteorological factors that mitigated the build-up of smoke that was released from the few fires that did burn. I've only considered the anomalous smoke years of 2017 & 2018 in one of the graphics below (#2. wind vector animation).
  1. Less frequent high pressure systems over us
    Here's a comparison of the height at which atmospheric pressure reaches 500mb (usually around 18K feet above), showing differences between 5 recent summers (excluding 2017 & 2018), and 2019. Data are June- July composites from global weather models that have been re-analyzed after the observational data became available. 2019 August data aren't yet available.
    The yellow over our region suggests that upper level pressure in past years were 10- 20m higher than what we saw in June- July this year. Not an insignificant difference. Include 2017 & 2018 and the difference jumps to about 35m.

    Higher pressure = lighter winds, warmer temperatures and dryer air. All the factors needed for conducive fire behavior and poor smoke dispersion happened less frequently this year.

    An aside: notice how areas to our north & the Arctic had higher pressure this year than the last few. We had several early season fires in northern Alberta & Alaska. In fact the May 31 2019 smoke shown in the air quality map animation above mostly originated from northern Alberta.
  2. Stronger upper level winds aimed at the Pacific Northwest

    Here's how the 700mb level (about 10K feet above) winds in recent summers compared with 2019. Notice how 2019 winds aimed at the Pacific NW are stronger than their 2012- 2018 counterparts. More active weather impacting our region = less chance for air to stagnate. 
  3. Cooler upper air temperatures

    And now, a 850mb level (4500 feet above) temperature difference plot. 2-3C warmer in other years than 2019. For a two month average, that's quite a difference. Cooler upper level air temps this year = less ground level warming & drying out.
Why the region's seasonal climatic variables behaved this way is beyond the scope of this blog. This season's fire behavior is compared & contrasted in a recent interview. The interested reader can compare ground- based observations of temperature and precipitation each year, against historical norms using the following NWS links.