Health officials are urging people to limit their exposure to outdoor air as smoke and ash from wildfires in the Columbia River Gorge blanket Southwest Washington.
The wildfire smoke, stagnant conditions and hot weather — coupled with elevated afternoon ozone levels in Clark County — prompted the Southwest Clean Air Agency to extend the air-pollution advisory for the region on Tuesday afternoon.
Conditions may improve some during the middle of the week, but unhealthy air-quality levels will remain, at times, until noon on Friday, according to the agency.
The conditions prompted Clark County Public Health to issue recommendations for people to protect themselves from the unhealthy air and potential smoke-related problems.
Smoky air can cause eye, nose and throat irritation even among people who don’t normally have respiratory issues. Drinking plenty of fluids will help to keep respiratory membranes moist, according to health officials.
“People with pre-existing medical conditions, elderly people and the young are especially vulnerable to smoky air,” Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer, said in a news release.
Clark County schools opened as normal on Tuesday, but recesses and sports practices were moved indoors to limit exposure to the smoke and ash. Some after-school activities and sports events were postponed as well.
Health officials recommend everyone in smoky areas avoid strenuous work, outdoor exercise or driving, whenever possible. People who work outdoors should try to remain indoors as much as possible. When outdoor work is necessary, health officials recommend wearing N95 masks, which filter out fine particles.
When driving is necessary, health officials recommend using the vehicle’s air conditioning on the recycle or recirculate mode to avoid drawing smoky air into the vehicle.
People should also keep their home windows and doors closed, opting for air conditioners instead. Most home air conditioners are designed to recirculate indoor air; those that have both outdoor air and recirculate settings should be sure to have the recirculate mode selected.
Those who are looking for places to escape the smoke and heat can visit public libraries, community centers, shopping malls, movie theaters and other city buildings. The Firstenburg Tower at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center is also open to the public.
Marc Eldridge works in PeaceHealth Southwest’s pulmonary clinic.
“We’ve had a few cancellations today due to the smoke,” Eldridge, a respiratory therapist, said Tuesday.
He encourages people to keep their medical appointments because it can take a while to get them rescheduled. If people turn on the air-conditioning in their cars, they will be only briefly exposed to the smoky air walking to and from the parking lot. Eldridge recommends people with conditions such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, COPD and asthma take extra precaution by wearing a mask.
Just how bad is it out there?
“The year I lived in L.A., we never saw anything this bad,” Eldridge said.
He also remembers working in a Boise, Idaho, hospital in the late ’80s when Hells Canyon caught on fire and more people went to the emergency room with breathing problems. That fire and the Eagle Creek Fire are comparable, he said.
As of Tuesday evening, PeaceHealth Southwest’s emergency department hadn’t had any walk-ins due to poor air quality. People are changing plans because they don’t want to go outside, said Randy Querin, hospital spokesman.
The main advice is to refrain from going outside unless you absolutely need to.
“If you’re homeless, that’s not an option because that’s where you live,” Querin said.
PeaceHealth gave money to the Council for the Homeless to purchase 200 masks for people experiencing homelessness. The masks filter out particulates that cause breathing issues.
Relief may be coming
The Southwest Clean Air Agency first issued an air-pollution advisory for Saturday through Tuesday. But additional fires in the Gorge led to deteriorating conditions and an advisory extension.
The latest stretch of poor air quality comes after several smoky days last month as wildfire smoke from elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest and Canada blew into Southwest Washington.
“This is pretty unprecedented to have this many days with bad air quality,” said Uri Papish, executive director of the Clean Air Agency.
But relief may be on the way later this week.
The weather service is predicting a 15 to 30 percent chance of rain starting Wednesday, but that comes with a chance for thunderstorms, as well.
However, what rain does come likely won’t cover the region.
“It’s not going to be widespread where everybody gets soaked. It’s going to be that some places get rain some places don’t,” said Andy Bryant, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
“I don’t know how many different people have told me they can’t wait for it to rain,” Querin said.
As the new air system moves in, it’ll bring with it increased humidity and a shift of the winds. By mid-day Wednesday, the wind should stop moving west and begin blowing lightly to the east. Gusts are expected to be between 10 and 15 mph.
“The wind is not going to be very strong, but it’s going to be enough to gradually clear the air out,” in Portland and Vancouver, Bryant said.
Thursday and Friday high temperatures should reach 78 and 75, respectively.
Columbian staff writer Katie Gillespie contributed to this story.