Don’t like the smoke? We can change that
Some of the worst air quality in 100 years is a taste of what the region was like a century ago, according to Cliff Mass, Atmospheric Sciences professor at the University of Washington. And if we don’t like it, he says we need to spend the money to fix it.
“This is the worst smoke interval we’ve had in decades, probably 50, 70 years around here, Mass told KIRO Radio’s Ron and Don Show. “It’s a very interesting event, meteorologically.”
During typical summer days in Seattle, Mass said air quality registers a five or 10, at most, micrograms per cubic meter. According to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s air quality map, Seattle was sitting at 90 on Tuesday afternoon.
“That’s high. That gets to a point where it gets unhealthy,” Mass said. “Once you get above 30 or 40, people have to be careful. Once you get over 100, it is unhealthy for virtually everybody.”
The National Weather Service in Seattle issued an Air Quality Alert until Wednesday at 5 p.m. And the entire region is under a Stage 1 burn ban, prohibiting outdoor burning such as fire pits and charcoal barbeques.
One of the issues is a lack of strong air flow off the Pacific Ocean and Mass said the sheer number of wildfires surrounding Western Washington on all sides — from the British Columbia fires to the north, to the California and Oregon wildfires in the south, and fires to the west in the North Cascade mountains.
“If winds are coming from a wide range of direction, we get smoke,” Mass said. “The only way we can get clean air, is if the air is coming off the ocean.”
That’s not expected to happen until Wednesday evening when an onshore flow returns with fresh, marine air. We should notice a significant difference by Thursday. Moisture also returns to the region by the end of the week and into the weekend.
Mass said while the past two summers feel otherworldly, a smoke event like this 100 years ago would not be a big deal.
“There used to be a large number of fires in the early part of the 20th Century and before that,” Mass said. “People don’t realize that this used to be a very smoky place because we have forests all around us. There used to be fires all the time. So smoke is not unknown around here.”
What is different, Mass said, is the fires are being suppressed. They have been for 100 years and we’ve grown accustomed to clean, smokeless air.
If you know Mass, you know he is a huge advocate for forest management and letting fires burn is part of managing a forest.
“They’re totally messed up,” Mass said. “They’re overgrown — dense growth that is just completely unnatural.”
Most of the time, humans are able to control a wildfire, but Mass said when they get away from us, it’s an explosive situation. Also, invasive grasses are perfect fuel for a wildfire.
Added to that is people are living where they shouldn’t be, Mass said.
“We’re starting fires and then we’re getting exposed to fires because we are where we shouldn’t be — where fires have burned for thousands of years.”
We’re going to pay for it anyway — fighting fires isn’t cheap — so Mass recommends using those resources for proper forest management.
“Be smart and spend the billions of dollars it’s going to take to fix the problem,” Mass said. “But once we do that, the catastrophic fires will decline and the air quality will get better in the long term. It’s our choice, but I think it would be a pretty good investment.”