Sometimes the great outdoors is not so great, even in the great Northwest.
A layer of cold air trapped at the surface has enveloped much of Washington, and with it all the crud we throw into the atmosphere every moment without thinking much about it.
Since noon Friday, the many households that use wood for fuel have had to think about it. And act.
Longtime Spokane residents can well remember similar climatic flukes of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, when particulates from inefficient cars, pulverized road sand and primitive wood stoves imparted a yellow-brown haze to valley atmospheres. Residents with breathing problems were advised to stay inside. Some had to go to the hospital. Others went about their business, some gagging as they went.
Burn bans were frequent occurrences.
But years of noncompliance with federal air quality standards finally translated into action. Liquid de-icer was substituted for rock salt. Harder sand resisted crushing. And makers of wood stoves and fireplace inserts began adapting technologies that reduced smoke.
Revolutionary technology has drastically reduced vehicle emissions, to zero or near zero in millions of cars and trucks.
Spokane’s air improved markedly. A stage-2 alert issued in January 2011 was the first in a decade. There were two others later that year. All were triggered by stove-related particulates: Put a pail over a fire, no matter how small, and sooner or later you have a container of soot, carbon monoxide and other gunk.
That is what we have again today.
Friday’s stage-1 yellow alert was raised to a stage-2 red on Sunday because particulates continued to accumulate in the absence of any wind to move it along. The National Weather Service said Monday that the unhealthy condition may persist into the weekend.
Stage-1 limits burning to stoves and inserts approved by the state of Washington, which has tougher requirements than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Stage-2 prohibits burning except by those households within Spokane County’s urban area that have no other heat source.
So far, about 30 citizen and staff complaints have been logged against apparent offenders, but the first count of citations was pending Monday afternoon.
The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency can help. A grant-funded change-out program has enabled about 200 homes to install stoves that comply with emission standards, but many homeowners are simply switching to natural gas. The grant was renewed in June so another 200 homes could undergo the conversion.
An agency Web page allows subscribers to monitor air quality. Use mushrooms during cold spells.
Clean air is an unappreciated asset. Wood-burners or not, we all need to take care of what we should not see all around us by reducing car trips and keeping thermostats low.
Inversions are a reminder we can do better.