Poor air conditions continue, but winds should help soon

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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With wildfires burning in three directions, smoke continues to linger over Southwest Washington, though it’s expected to begin a gradual decline in the coming days.

Matthew Cullen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said calm west winds should gradually begin pushing smoke out of the area through Sunday.

“The general trend is, air quality should improve, but people shouldn’t be surprised to see a haziness higher in the sky,” he said. “There’s really fires in all directions around us except to our west.”

The region got a bit of a reprieve from the smoke Tuesday night when the winds shifted and began blowing from the west. That carried some of the smoke out of the area, but only briefly. By Wednesday morning the east winds resumed.

Due to smoke, stagnant conditions and hot weather, air quality in Vancouver was considered very unhealthy Wednesday afternoon and unhealthy as far north as Chehalis by the Southwest Clean Air Agency. Many people are likely to experience breathing problems or experience worsening symptoms from existing lung or heart conditions.

The harsh conditions prompted Evergreen Public Schools to postpone all outdoor matches, games and events for the day. All outdoor practices and other activities were moved inside.

For Vancouver, the National Weather Service has extended its red flag warning through 11 p.m. Thursday. Forecasters predicted “abundant lightning” for some areas Wednesday, noting it could result in numerous fire starts.

Along with the lightning, there was a 30 percent chance of rain from Wednesday through Friday. A west wind blowing between 3 and 7 mph is expected to start Thursday afternoon and last through Friday as well. That should start moving the smoke out of the area for the weekend, but it could return early next week as a high-pressure system returns.

Officials are still urging the public to be cautious while the smoke is around.

People with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable, but even healthy people can still experience irritated eyes, noses and throats due to the smoky air. 

The Washington State Department of Health recommends people protect themselves by avoiding strenuous outdoor activity and staying inside. It’s also recommended to keep windows and doors closed and to use recirculating air conditioners and air filtration systems, if possible.

Certain masks can provide relief for those with no choice but to be outside. Respirator masks labeled N95 or N100 filter out fine particles, but not dangerous gases. They also won’t fit properly on people with beards or on small children. The masks are commonly available at hardware stores and some pharmacies.

Although it’s bad in Southwest Washington, the region is hardly alone in dealing with low air quality.

Because of fires ravaging landscapes throughout the Northwest, several states from Oregon to Northern California east to western Montana, and from the Canadian border down to Southern Idaho, are under air-quality alerts from the National Weather Service.