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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane’s air pollution sinks to lowest level, ‘hazardous’ for first time

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 21, 2015

Don Fuller, of Spokane, takes photographs of the smoke-filled city skyline from Cliff Drive on Wednesday afternoon. “It looks really weird, really crazy, apocalyptic,” Fuller said. (Colin Mulvany)
Don Fuller, of Spokane, takes photographs of the smoke-filled city skyline from Cliff Drive on Wednesday afternoon. “It looks really weird, really crazy, apocalyptic,” Fuller said. (Colin Mulvany)
Mike Prager and Rachel Alexander
UPDATE: Air quality readings in Spokane County continued to sink and were considered ‘hazardous,’ the worst level, at 8:20 p.m. At 9:20 p.m., readings improved to “very unhealthy” and improved again to the “unhealthy” level at 10:20. The readings are reported hourly by the Spokane Clean Air Agency.

Spokane’s smoke-filled skies Friday evening turned the Lilac City into the most air-polluted place in the country as air quality dropped to a reading of very unhealthy for all. The severe pollution extended from the Spokane Indian reservation to Coeur d’Alene and Helena, Montana, along with Idaho Falls. Together, the four locations topped the list for the most polluted locales in the country. Experts said it was likely the poorest air quality in the region since Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, sending a massive cloud of volcanic ash around the world. Air quality started out Friday in the moderate range, but then worsened as a cold front arrived from the northwest. Little relief is expected in the foreseeable future. The forecast calls for continued unhealthy air today and Sunday, said Julie Oliver, director of Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency. She said the agency’s website was overwhelmed with people trying to get information. “We’ve had phones ringing non-stop,” she said. Another online resource that tracks air pollution can be found at airnow.gov. The National Weather Service is calling for areas of smoke throughout next week. Health officials are urging people to limit time spent outside, avoid exercising and choose non-strenuous indoor activities. Make sure all windows and doors are closed and turn on the furnace fan if there is one. A high-efficiency air filter should be used, if available. People with asthma, respiratory infection, diabetes, heart and lung disease or with a history of stroke should especially stay indoors. Pregnant woman, infants and children should also stay indoors. Dr. Joel McCullough, health officer at the Spokane Regional Health District, said even healthy people experience symptoms from air quality this poor. That includes irritated eyes and throat. People with chronic heart or lung diseases may experience a worsening of their symptoms, he said. “We’re recommending that most people be indoors as much as possible,” McCollough said. Steve Kernermen, a doctor at the Spokane Allergy and Asthma Clinic, said he’s been seeing an uptick in patients with asthma and upper respiratory problems all week. “This smoke is only making that worse,” he said. “I wish there was more we could do to clear the air but there’s literally nothing we can do except wait for the wind to shift or rain to fall.” Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center hasn’t seen an uptick in emergency room visits, which probably means people needing care have been going to primary care doctors or urgent care, said spokeswoman Jennifer Semenza. As a result of the poor air quality, Spokane Valley has cancelled an outdoor movie showing scheduled for tonight at Mirabeau Point Park. Open swim sessions at Valley pools have also been cancelled. A Spokane Indians game scheduled for 6:30 p.m. is postponed, with the team planning on playing a double-header on Aug. 28. A youth soccer tournament was cancelled this weekend, and Greater Spokane League schools were expected to suspend practices under the unhealthy conditions. Ron Edgar, retired chemist for the clean air agency, said that Spokane has seen its share of wildfire smoke over the years. The Spokane area “Firestorm” in 1991 probably caused the most severe smoke pollution in recent history, but that was before Friday, he said. It is difficult to compare the current smoke pollution with past events because the method for monitoring smoke pollution has changed. But “we are certainly getting as much or more smoke than we did during Firestorm,” Edgar said. Agricultural dust storms have blown over the region numerous times, and there were some severe ones over the years, he said. But the Mount St. Helens eruption was the peak event. “It’s hard to top a volcano,” he said. People have been calling 911 with concerns about smoke in the region, the Spokane Fire Department said in a news release. “We are closely monitoring the air quality as conditions have worsened due to smoke from numerous wildfires across Washington state,” Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said. The fire department is urging people to be cautious when driving. Heavy smoke has settled into many stretches of Interstate 90 and other highways in the area. U.S. Highway 395 was shut down in Stevens County from milepost 245 to 260 by the state Department of Transportation, but there are no other road closures in the area.

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