Photo by Marcy Stamper
The outlines of Twisp were familiar — but the town was under a pall and visibility was significantly reduced — when the air quality hit Very Unhealthy last week.

Methow Valley is worst of the worst

By Marcy Stamper

The Methow Valley had the unwelcome distinction of suffering the worst air quality of any spot in the state this past week when the state’s air overall was the worst in the nation. A potential southwest breeze could bring momentary relief this weekend.

“Unfortunately, you’re in a double-whammy situation in the Methow,” said Ranil Dhammapala, an atmospheric scientist with the state Department of Ecology, who confirmed that the Methow Valley had the worst air quality in Washington on Friday (Aug. 4).

Wind from the north carried smoke from dozens of wildfires burning in British Columbia into the state. But most of the smoke in the Methow is from the nearby Diamond Creek Fire in the Pasayten Wilderness, said Dhammapala.

A southwest air flow would disperse the smoke and may provide a break starting this weekend, said Dhammapala. There are also isolated lightning storms in the forecast over the course of this week, he said.

People can also expect periodic relief if it’s breezy. “If the wind is blowing fast enough, it’ll be less dense, and give you a little breathing space, so to speak,” said Dhammapala.

Smoke on the valley floor is probably from the Diamond Creek Fire, while the upper-level haze is from Canada, said Bailey Rapp, an air resource adviser trainee assigned to the now12,000-plus acre Diamond Creek Fire.

“What’s interesting about the situation we’re seeing is how widespread the impacts are. Essentially the whole state is blanketed by the B.C. fires,” said Andy Wineke, a spokesperson for Ecology. The fires have burned more than 2,300 square miles in British Columbia so far this season.

Health hazards

The biggest concern from the persistent smoke is its health impacts. The grayish-yellow pall over the Methow Valley has been dense enough that even healthy people will experience a scratchy throat and eyes and could have difficulty breathing, said Gary Palcisko, a toxicologist with Ecology’s air quality program.

But for sensitive groups  — children, pregnant women, people over 65, and people with respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses — the smoke presents significant hazards, he said.

For healthy people the discomfort and smoke-induced symptoms will go away after the air clears, said Palcisko. But people with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) could require medical attention and their symptoms can linger after the smoke dissipates.

For people with heart disease, smoke-born chemicals can cause inflammation, which can increase the risk of a heart attack, said Palcisko. The risk for pregnant women, who may not feel symptoms directly, is that smoke can cause inflammation that can affect the fetus, he said.

How bad is it?

There are many online resources for real-time information about air quality and health risks. Seth Preston with the Northwest Clean Air Agency said the best place for information is Ecology’s map, which has dots color-coded to rate local air quality.

Ecology uses the Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA) rating system, which combines data from a network of monitors that measure multiple pollutants. Preston said this state’s scale for health warnings is stricter than that used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which issues the Air Quality Index.

There are about 60 monitoring sites around the state. Every single site reached the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” level at least once this month as of Tuesday (Aug. 8), said Camille St. Onge, a spokesperson with Ecology’s air quality program. And all but one of the monitors has registered “unhealthy” air quality at least once this month, she said.

When scientists call air unhealthy, they’re talking primarily about fine particles that are small enough to lodge in the lungs, where they can cause long-term impacts, said Wineke.

The six color-coded categories are based on a scale from 0 to 500. The categories are Good, Moderate, Unsafe for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy and Hazardous.

Recent readings provide a sobering perspective on what we’ve been breathing. On Friday, Winthrop and Twisp were in the Very Unhealthy category. On Sunday, Twisp hit Hazardous for a time. Any reading over 200 is considered Very Unhealthy, meaning even healthy people can have problems breathing.

While it is tempting to plan activity according to a specific number, the monitors record data all day long and instantaneous values can change rapidly, said Dhammapala. Daily averages can be affected by a few hours of good or bad air, prompting people to believe they don’t need to take precautions, he said.

But even when air quality is Moderate, people with respiratory conditions or heart disease should avoid strenuous outdoor activity. By the time the advisory reaches Unhealthy, everyone should limit time outdoors and avoid exercise, and those in sensitive groups should stay indoors.

Very Unhealthy conditions like those experienced in Twisp on Sunday mean all individuals should limit outdoor activity and wear an N-95 respirator mask if they have to be outside.

Okanogan County Public Health has provided masks at several locations for free distribution.

People also should keep windows and doors closed and use air conditioners (on a recycled-air setting) or air filters. Those with serious respiratory or heart conditions should consult a health care provider for advice about temporarily leaving the area, according to Ecology.

“The biggest take-home message is, if you can avoid going outside and exerting yourself, that’s the best thing to do to protect yourself,” said Palcisko.

Smoke interferes with firefighting

On several days this past week the smoke was so thick that firefighting crews could not use aircraft to make water drops on the Diamond Creek Fire. On Monday (Aug. 7) they got a break.

Two air resource advisors have joined the fire team. They’ve installed monitoring equipment in Mazama to measure fine particulates, wind direction and relative humidity, to help them provide daily site-specific forecasts and warnings. Their reports are posted  on the Diamond Creek Fire Facebook page.

The Diamond Creek Fire is expected to burn into the fall. “Because of its remote and difficult-to-access location, [the Diamond Creek Fire] is likely to continue burning and causing air quality issues for the surrounding area until Mother Nature sends the firefighters an assist in the form of fall rains,” Dhammapala wrote on the Washington smoke blog.

Fire managers point to one upside of the smoke  — it has “capped the heat” from the sun, which is helping stabilize conditions on the ground, slowing fire growth and increasing the effectiveness of firefighting efforts, according to Bob Johnson, the wildfire division manager with the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Where to find masks

N-95 respirator masks, which filter the fine particulates that pose the greatest health risks, are available for free at:
• Twisp City Hall
• Aero Methow Rescue Service in Twisp
• Winthrop Visitor Center

Aero Methow and the Winthrop Visitors Center are both open weekends.
The masks can also be purchased at hardware stores.

Where to find air quality ratings, forecasts

General information on air quality:
Smoke Updates for Diamond Creek Fire:
Dept. of Ecology’s color-coded map: