Arrow-right Camera
News >  Washington

Smoke break is coming. Could haze still mar the eclipse?

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 9, 2017, 10:21 p.m.

The evening sun shines through a U.S. flag flying in the wind against a sky made hazy with smoke from wildfires, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in Tacoma, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
The evening sun shines through a U.S. flag flying in the wind against a sky made hazy with smoke from wildfires, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in Tacoma, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Shifting winds should blow smoke out of Washington by this weekend.

But there’s no guarantee it won’t blow right back in if the weather changes. That means it’s unclear if smoky skies will hinder viewing of the total solar eclipse Aug. 21.

As the 2017 smoke show entered its eighth day Wednesday, a coalition of state agencies urged residents to keep abreast of conditions and adjust accordingly to avoid aggravating health conditions such as asthma, heart conditions and diabetes.

In a hastily assembled phone call organized Tuesday by the Washington State Department of Ecology, health officials together with wildfire and climate scientists painted a gloomy portrait of the situation.

Since Aug. 1, every region of the state has recorded at least one day of unhealthy air quality.

Canadian wildfires burning as close as 190 miles north of the Washington-British Columbia border are nearly out of control.

But they aren’t alone. Washington has at least three major fires currently, and hundreds have started since April. There is lightning in the forecast for the balance of the week, which could add to the problem.

That prompted officials from the U.S. Forest Service and Washington Department of Natural Resources to urge people to take extreme care to avoid accidentally starting fires.

“Our fuels and our weather are working against us,” said Bob Johnson, DNR’s wildfire manager and chairman of the agency that coordinates firefighting activities in the Pacific Northwest.

Canadian government models

Johnson described a deteriorating situation as fire activity shifts from moderate to high levels. All but one of the interagency fire teams are deployed and the lightning forecast could spell trouble.

The lightning is expected in northeastern Washington, though hot air mixed with moisture could bring isolated strikes to western Washington too.

“We are looking for new strikes because of that,” he said.

As hard as it is to believe, the Canadian smoke is helping firefighters in Washington by depressing temperatures. Thompson credited the Canadian smoke with helping stabilize temperatures and ground conditions near the Snohomish town of Darrington enough to give firefighters the upper hand on a blaze there this week.

Here’s what the experts had to say about the situation:

Smoke and your health

Take the smoke seriously, said Julie Fox, ambient air quality epidemiologist with the state Department of Health.

Her three-point message: Smoke is bad for you, take steps to protect yourself and seek medical attention if you become ill.

Symptoms include burning eyes, nose and coughing. Smoke can aggravate preexisting conditions and turn deadly, she said.

The health department advises people to stay alert to conditions and avoid going outdoors. Keep doors and windows closed to protect indoor air quality.

As of late Tuesday morning, the local air quality was rated unhealthy for sensitive groups by the Benton Clean Air Agency.

Where the fires are

Much of British Columbia is under a state of emergency and many fires are only minimally contained. Officials call it a tragedy and note that one, at Ashcroft, is just north of the U.S.-Canadian border.

Three Washington fires are in difficult terrain, at Diamond Creek north of Mazama, Noisy Creek on the Colville National Forest and the North Fork Hughes Fire on the Washington side of the Priest Lake District.

All will “likely be long-term fires,” said Traci Weaver, a spokeswoman.

Smoke from Washington’s fires is clogging the Methow Valley but is not a significant contributor to the haze. Nevertheless, the forest service wants to avoid incidents.

“We need people to be really careful out there,” Weaver said.

Smoke and weather patterns

All of the 60 air quality monitors posted around Washington have recorded at least one unhealthy day in August, showing just how widespread the problem is. Nine, including one off Metaline Avenue in Kennewick, have reached the very unhealthy stage at least once.

Ranil Dhammapala, an atmospheric scientist with the Department of Ecology and author of a smoke blog, characterized the widespread and enduring air quality problems as highly unusual. As of Tuesday, conditions had improved on the coast and the Puget Sound Basin but Eastern Washington remained in the unhealthy category.

Dhammapala said forecast models indicate changing air patterns will clear the Canadian smoke out this week, first on the West Side and then on the East Side. But the smoke break could be short. Dhammapala said forecast models only extend a week.

Beyond that it’s anyone guess if conditions will change again. Pressed to guess if the smoke layer will impact the upcoming eclipse, he declined to speculate.

“The uncertainty is wide,” he said. “The chance does exist that this could return.”