Thursday, November 5, 2015

Air Time: A summer of unhealthy smoke

Now that was a bad wildfire season!

By Ranil Dhammapala, Ecology atmospheric scientist

Wildfires in 2015 burned more acres in Washington State than the last five years combined, according to data from the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. Abnormally warm temperatures, a snow drought last winter, early snow melt this spring and a mostly dry summer were among the reasons.
In addition to the tragic loss of lives and property, many people were forced to breathe heavily polluted air for several days. Eastern Washingtonians were exposed to an average of about 11 days where air quality was either Unhealthy or worse, compared to an average of about seven days in recent years with bad wildfires.

As can be expected, air quality varied widely from place to place. Omak for instance saw air quality degrade much more than it did in past years, while Wenatchee's air quality was far better this wildfire season than the unprecedented exposure to smoke experienced in 2012. 
Not all smoke plumes are measured by the network of air quality monitoring sites Several temporary monitors placed in smoke impacted communities recorded poor air quality at different times, but those data have not been considered in the above analysis.

Satellite picture on Aug. 23, 2015, shows widespread smoke in the Pacific Northwest. Measured air quality conditions are also shown with colored dots. Burgundy, red and orange being the most concerning for smoke exposure.
While the human body can recover from short-term exposure to wildfire smoke, it is well known that smoke inhalation causes breathing difficulties among people with prior respiratory or cardiovascular diseases. Elderly people, pregnant women, infants and children can be susceptible at lower pollution levels. Extreme smoke levels can trigger heart attacks or strokes, even among healthy people. 

As we transition from wildfire season to home heating season, the public is encouraged to observe any burn bans that might be imposed in case of stagnant air and take necessary precautions to limit exposure to impaired air. 

If you are a wood burner, make sure you only burn dry, seasoned firewood in small, hot fires. A low-polluting woodstove or pellet stove would make an excellent Christmas gift. Your family and neighbors will thank you for it.

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