By Marcy Stamper

If it seemed smoky on Tuesday (Aug. 12) and you had trouble catching your breath or missed your usual vigor, you were right—the air quality that day was among the worst in the region in several weeks, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

Photo by Marcy Stamper

Photo by Marcy Stamper

The three-day forecast for air quality in much of the Methow Valley, from Winthrop to Twisp and south to Pateros, is for conditions to remain “unhealthy.” In Omak, air quality will be even worse, in the “very unhealthy” category. Those categories are fourth and fifth in severity on a six-level scale ranging from “good” to “hazardous.”

When conditions are classified as unhealthy from smoke and other fine particles, many more people than average may have breathing problems or worsened symptoms of existing lung or heart disease, according to Ecology, which measures air quality around the state.

In “unhealthy” conditions, everyone should limit time spent outdoors and avoid physical exertion outdoors. People with asthma, respiratory infection, diabetes, lung or heart disease, and those who have had a stroke should stay indoors. Infants, children, pregnant women and adults over age 65 should also stay indoors, according to the Washington Department of Health.

When air quality is “very unhealthy,” even healthy people can have breathing problems, so everyone is advised to stay indoors and avoid physical exertion. 

Still, most people who are exposed to smoke will not have lasting health problems, according to the Department of Health.

One of the most dangerous components of wildfire smoke is carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless and toxic gas. Levels of carbon monoxide are considerably lower just a few hundred yards downwind of a fire, meaning that firefighters working near a fire are at greatest risk. Signs of high carbon monoxide levels in the blood include headaches, dizziness, nausea and decreased mental functioning. Certain types of face masks (labeled N95 or N100) will filter dangerous particles from smoke (although not carbon monoxide). Ordinary dust or surgical masks do not provide protection.

People can check a color-coded map and see daily air-quality levels, forecasts and health advisories on The Washington Department of Health also has information specific to wildfires and smoke.