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Shawn Vestal: Clean summer air is but a dream

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

Two decades ago, Spokane’s clean air agency started monitoring the presence of tinier particles in the air.

A new federal standard called for monitoring the particulate matter (PM) in the air that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller; a human hair’s diameter is about 30 times larger. Previous monitoring had checked for particles 10 micrometers in diameter.

It’s bad for your health to inhale too much of any such particles, but the smaller, finer particles that fall below the PM2.5 standard – smoke particles in particular – can be especially bad, going deeper into the lungs and causing serious problems in particular among those with respiratory illness, children or the elderly.

In 1999, the first year the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency began monitoring for fine particles, there were no days when the presence of particulate matter in the air exceeded the threshold for health concern.

Every single day of 1999, the air was safe to breathe.


In 2000, there were two days that barely rose above the “unhealthy for some groups” standard – two days when vulnerable people were advised to avoid breathing the outdoor air. Both of those days came in autumn, resulting from wood stove smoke on days with stagnant air.

In 2001, it was the same – two woodsmoky days in November, barely above the safety standard.

In 2002, there were seven days in the “unhealthy for some” range. Every one came in November, the result of stagnant air in combination with wood stove smoke.

There were two “unhealthy for some” days in 2003 – and none at all during the following five years.

Five years. No unhealthy days.

In 2009, there were two “unhealthy for some” days. One was July 4, and the cause was smoke from fireworks displays. The other bad day? Wood stove smoke and stagnant air.

In 2010, there was one woodsmoky day, in December.

In 2011, there were none.

Then came three such days in 2012, and two in 2013, and two again in 2014.

In the 16 years between 1999 and 2014, there were 23 days where the air quality was considered unhealthy for vulnerable people.

Of those, only three days were attributed to wildfire smoke. During those years, the largest air-quality problem we had around here – by far – was wood-burning stoves emitting smoke that became trapped when the atmospheric conditions were stagnant.

And not once in that time period did the air quality reach the level that the experts would deem unhealthy for all of us.

You already know how the rest of this story goes, right?

In 2015, Washington state suffered its worst wildfire season in history. The nation suffered its worst wildfire season in history. More than 10 million acres burned around the country, sending plumes of fine particulate matter into the sky, plumes that can travel thousands and thousands of miles on the wind.

A lot of it came here to settle into our lungs.

In 2015, Spokane County’s air quality exceeded the safe range 16 times. On 11 days, the air quality was “unhealthy for some.”

Five days were unhealthy, period. Unhealthy for everyone.

It was the worst stretch of air quality since the clean air agency began tracking fine particles – so far.

It was also the first time the unhealthy days came during August.

The first year of the new normal.

At first it might not have seemed so. The year 2015 might have seemed, briefly, an aberration, because in all of 2016 there was not a single day of unhealthy air at any range.

But you know how this goes, right?

Wildfires became bigger, burned longer. On 18 days in 2017, the air here was not healthy for breathing for at least some of us. Ten of those days came in August, and there was a five-day period in September that included the worst stretch of air quality – the densest accumulation of fine particles over several days – that we’ve seen in 20 years.

There were more unhealthy-for-all days in September 2017 than in all the years between 1999 and 2015 combined.

Last year, there were 13 days above the moderate level, all in August. Nearly half the month was swallowed up by the itchy eyes and orange sun of smoke season.

So far this year, we’ve had just two days in the unhealthy range. But we’re at the front edge of smoke season: of the 48 days in the unhealthy range between 2015 and 2018, 30 of them came after Aug. 11.

Summers are simply not what they were. And there is little reason to think that smoke season is going to change much in the years to come: Scientists predict climate change will create ever-more-favorable conditions for huge, uncontrollable wildfires around the West. A 2017 study estimated that wildfires in many Western states will grow in size, on average, between 500% and 700% in the next two decades.

Bigger and bigger clouds of tiny, tiny lung trouble. Get used to it.

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