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Study says Washingtonians should start preparing for smoke days

Haze blocks the sun at the Foss Waterway near the 11th Street bridge in Tacoma. (Photo by Ed Marceau)

As the frequency of wildfires continues to grow in the Northwest, residents may have to start preparing for smoke days, like they do for power outages and snow days.

“Most of thee year our air quality is very good, I would say better than the eastern United States and California. We have a few days a year when we are getting wildfire smoke and those days can range from moderate to horrible,” said University of Washington Professor Dan Jaffe.

“We are seeing an increasing number of large wildfires in the western United States,” he said. “As a result, we are seeing a statistically significant increase in the particulate matter air pollution on the worst days. We looked at … the seven worst days each year. And for a large part of the Northwest, those seven worst days are getting worse.”

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Jaffe’s latest study points out what many may take as obvious: air quality becomes hazardous around wildfire prone areas and during intense fire incidents. Washington residents became aware of this in summer 2017 when the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency issued multiple warnings and burn bans because of hazardous air quality. People around Western Washington had to take measures to counter the polluted air.

But the hazard is becoming more severe. Jaffe’s study considered the last 30 years of air quality data and says the past decade has become particularly bad.

Washington is experiencing what officials call a “categorical shift” in the wildfire season — fires are growing more intense and longer. Wildfires have mostly struck the eastern part of the state. But Washington’s Department of Natural Resources is staging three firefighting helicopters closer in Western Washington this year — something it has never had to do before.

Smoke days

Preparing for smoke days will mean keeping the air inside a home clean will be the priority.

“If you live in wildfire-prone country, you should be thinking about how to protect your house in terms of fire barriers and clearing brush,” Jaffe said. “Another thing to think about is how you can keep smoke out of your house … it is inevitable, at some point in the next few years, there will be a smoke event affecting you. What are you going to do about it to reduce your exposure to air pollution as much as possible? How you can keep smoke out of your house is an important factor to think about in advance.”

Climate Change and wildfires

Officials know that poor forest management has left plenty of material on the ground for wildfires to burn. But the climate is adding fuel to that fire. Jaffe’s study also links the issue to global warming.

“Bigger picture, I think we all need to be thinking about how to address climate change,” Jaffe said, noting that numerous studies point to climate change as a factor in increasing wildfires throughout the western United States. “That is an issue we are leaving behind to our children. The sooner we can address that, the less severe the consequences will be.”

“We know that climate is playing a role, we are having hotter days, hotter years, the snow pack is getting reduced because of an increase in the rain-snow area — the area where the transition between where we get rain and where we get snow is creeping up (higher),” he said. “We just have hotter drier summers, and that also contributes to more lightning. There’s a lot of factors and many of them are related to climate change.”

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