A rampaging late-summer wildfire that sent communities and hikers fleeing west of Stevens Pass on Saturday continues to burn as evacuations and a major highway closure remain in effect.
The Bolt Creek fire, reported early Saturday at 20 acres, had rapidly grown to 7,600 acres by Sunday. The cause of the blaze is undetermined.
As of Sunday afternoon, an 18-mile corridor of Highway 2 remained closed, and a mandatory Level 3 evacuation is still in place between Index and Skykomish, north of the highway.
Diminished air quality, meanwhile, continues to plague much of the state. Air quality in the Seattle region will start to gradually improve Sunday as the wind changes direction and a marine breeze sweeps away the smoke by Monday, said Samantha Borth, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
Traffic on Interstate 90 is expected to be more congested than usual as thousands return home from weekend travel and because of detouring traffic from both Stevens Pass and White Pass, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. Drivers in the Leavenworth and Wenatchee areas were advised to divert through Blewett Pass to I-90, for trips to the Seattle-Everett area, instead of trying to drive Highway 2 westward.
Wildfire smoke causes worst Seattle air quality in 2 years
Wildfire smoke continues to blanket Seattle and the Northwest, afflicting residents with some of the worst air since the wildfires two years ago.
A monitor in King County registered Saturday a reading of 153 PM 2.5, a measure of tiny airborne particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter. (Think: 30 times smaller than a hair from your head.) That preliminary data appears to be the worst pollution in almost two years, when Gov. Jay Inslee said air quality in the state was at “historically polluted levels.”
Saturday was by far King County’s worst day of 2022, which to this point has had cleaner air than the five-year average.
Before 2020, the county registered its highest pollution levels in August 2018, when six days topped 150 PM 2.5.
Air quality has marginally improved Sunday throughout the Seattle region, with readings of 90 PM 2.5.
Port Townsend and Port Angeles had poorer air quality Sunday afternoon, with readings considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, while Marysville, Mount Vernon and Bellingham were bearing the worst, with unhealthy air quality.
State officials suggest people limit time outdoors, avoid strenuous activity, close windows and doors, and use a HEPA filter if possible.
There is some good news on its way, however: “The weather conditions that brought the very dangerous fire pattern to Western Washington have started to ease quite a bit,” said Matthew Dehr, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ wildland fire meteorologist.
Dehr expects conditions by midweek to improve the air quality significantly.
“By Tuesday we should see nice clear sunshine here on the west side of the state,” he said.
That’s thanks to cooler, autumnal temperatures and onshore flow conditions, said Samantha Borth, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Seattle.
“We’re looking at temperatures in the upper 70s to low 80s for much of the region,” with even cooler temperatures on the coast, Borth said. Some light precipitation also may fall in the Seattle area throughout the coming week.
In an effort to provide relief from the smoke, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has activated a severe weather shelter at Compass Housing Alliance’s day center, which will provide 50 beds for people to stay overnight at 77 S. Washington St. in Seattle.
Across the Cascades, air quality is also at unhealthy levels in the Tri-Cities, Spokane and Pullman area because of wildfires in Idaho, Montana, and Oregon.
“They have not had as strong of winds as we’ve had here,” Dehr said. “So what’s happening there is the smoke’s really just kind of settling there due to the lack of winds to transport it away.”
A storm system is expected statewide early next week to disperse that smoke. Meanwhile, a red flag warning remains in effect for most of Western Washington, meaning fire risk is high. King County’s Stage 2 burn ban also remains in place, prohibiting all outdoor recreational fires.