Air quality falls as particulates rise

Dry conditions, state's wildfires fuel worries about fire danger, health

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Anyone with asthma may have noticed a difference in local air quality during the past couple of weeks.

By Tuesday, all it took was a window and a view for anyone to notice.

For Rhonda Gibson, an increasing number of particulates in the air — made apparent this week by a strong haze hanging over the region, obscuring horizons — has exacerbated the symptoms of her usually mild asthma.

"As the day goes on, it's harder and harder for me to breathe," said Gibson, who lives in the Hazel Dell area.

Extremely warm, dry weather has helped fuel numerous wildfires across the Northwest this summer. Parched landscapes have made it more difficult for the firefighters battling them, and strained air quality in some communities without help from Mother Nature.

The high-risk fire conditions also have local departments on edge. A handful of Clark County agencies recently enacted an indefinite recreational burn ban until conditions improve. On Tuesday afternoon, a fire in a vacant field in the Sifton neighborhood erupted into a two-alarm emergency.

"This is really a heightened year for fire hazard," said Heidi Scarpelli, fire marshal with the Vancouver Fire Department.

Vancouver has registered barely a quarter-inch of precipitation since July 1, according to the National Weather Service in Portland, and went the entire month of August without any measurable rain. High temperatures continue to land in the 80s — it was 87 degrees Tuesday, well above normal for this time of year — with no rain in sight.

The state Department of Natural Resources issued a burn ban on its own lands starting July 1. That restriction continues through Sept. 30. A cool, wet spring delayed this year's fire season, but also bolstered the growth of brush and grass that's now dried up to provide ample fuel, said DNR spokesman Bryan Flint.

Wildfires continue to burn in the Central and Eastern Washington and Oregon. Clark County and other parts of the region are starting to see the effects of the resulting smoke and haze. Vancouver's air quality hadn't reached hazardous levels Tuesday, but particulate levels have increased, said Randy Peltier, operations manager for the Southwest Clean Air Agency.

"It's been climbing pretty steadily since Saturday," he said.

Burn bans in the area aim to keep those pollutant levels down. But if the wind doesn't cooperate, it may not matter, Peltier said.

"Even if everybody's complying," he said, "we could still be getting some of the smoke from the wildfires coming in."

To be clear, Clark County's air quality hasn't come close to smoke-choked places such as Wenatchee and Sisters, Ore. Those cities have seen major restrictions on outdoor activities as fires continue to burn nearby.

Gibson, of Hazel Dell, said she's used her asthma medicine and inhalers more often in recent weeks. She's watched her activities carefully during certain times of the day. And Gibson encouraged other residents to take care of each other, particularly those most vulnerable to poor air quality.

"They may be having trouble breathing," Gibson said. "Watch out for people, especially if it looks like they might be in distress."

Fire officials urged the same caution toward fire prevention. It doesn't take much to spark a potentially dangerous blaze with such dry weather, Scarpelli said.

Vancouver, Camas and Washougal all had burn bans in place as of Tuesday. If conditions don't improve, DNR will discuss whether to extend its burn ban beyond Sept. 30, Flint said.

"We're usually done with fire season by then," he said. "It's usually raining."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.