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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Smoky air so soon? Fires in northern Alberta the culprit

The U.S. Pavilion and Clock Tower are shrouded in heavy smoke blanketing the region Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018, in downtown Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s not even summer, but it’ll soon smell like it: For the first time this year, Eastern Washington is forecast to be plagued with wildfire smoke.

The state Department of Ecology predicts the Spokane area could experience air quality in the “unhealthy for some groups” range, meaning some people may experience health effects with prolonged exposure to outside air.

Most areas, however, will record air in the “moderate” to “good” range.

The culprit? A cluster of wildfires burning in Canada in northern Alberta, mixed with a weather system pushing the smoke south down the Okanogan and Columbia River valleys and into Eastern Washington.

Andrew Wineke, communications manager for the Department of Ecology’s Air Quality Program, said the smoke was, for the most part, staying up high, where it didn’t bother many humans. That’s likely to change this weekend, beginning Saturday.

“If it stays aloft that’s great for sunsets,” Wineke said. “But once it gets down to ground level, it gets to where we can’t breathe.”

Ranil Dhammapala, an atmospheric scientist at the Department of Ecology, wrote Friday on the department’s smoke blog that smoky air is predicted to recede from the Cascade foothills and Columbia Basin pushing east, before rebounding Sunday and Monday.

All things considered, not a lot of smoke, he said, “but the cat among the pigeons” is the risk of lightning in the Cascades and northeast Washington as slow-moving wet thunderstorms roll through.

As of Friday afternoon, the Spokane Clean Air Agency recorded air in the “moderate” range at an index of 57 – seven points shy of “good.” The dominant pollutant is fine particulate matter, or particles found in smoke.

Wildfire smoke is not expected to befall the western residents of the state.

Last year, Eastern Washington experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons on record. That meant weeks of unhealthy air, including the worst day of air quality in Spokane history.

“It’s a little dismaying after the last couple of years to have these problems so early in the year,” said Wineke.