Clark County entered hazardous air-quality territory late Thursday as wildfire smoke traveling from other areas enveloped Southwest Washington.
Southwest Clean Air Agency has extended an air pollution advisory through noon Monday for Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Skamania and Wahkiakum counties because of the elevated levels of fine particulate matter, PM2.5, in the air.
As of Thursday evening, the air quality index for Vancouver was at 342, well into the “hazardous” range, the worst categorization for air quality, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.
Other parts of the county are faring better, according to Ecology. Part of the Yacolt area had risen to 193, in the “unhealthy” range and almost in the “very unhealthy” range. An air-quality monitor in east Vancouver showed a “good” reading but does not measure for fine particulate matter.
Ecology modeling is predicting air quality will worsen throughout Clark County on Friday. National Weather Service Portland tweeted on Thursday morning that thicker smoke and poor air quality will continue to shift into the Portland metro area Friday and stick around throughout the weekend.
Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center saw a few patients Wednesday night who were seeking care related to smoky air, said Brian Terrett, a spokesman for the Legacy hospital system. Terrett said there hasn’t been a significant surge in respiratory patients at Salmon Creek yet.
Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said extreme weather events have become more common in his nearly 30 years of working in public health. He referenced more frequent algae blooms in Clark County bodies of water and this week’s poor air quality as things caused by drier and hotter summers.
“These things all go together,” Melnick said. “This is going to be a continuing issue.”
Extreme weather can take a toll on people’s physical health. At a Clark County Board of Health meeting last year, Public Health warned of the health effects from wildfires. According to research, emergency department visits for respiratory problems spiked in Clark and Multnomah counties during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbian River Gorge.
The Eagle Creek Fire started Sept. 2, 2017. The worst air quality days during the fire occurred Sept. 4 through 6, according to Clark County Public Health epidemiologist Kathleen Lovgren, who briefed the board of health last year.
There were more than 160 asthma-related emergency department visits in Clark and Multnomah counties Sept. 5, 2017, which is about twice as many visits as there were in the days leading up to the fire.
“Exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to exacerbations of asthma and COPD, especially from people who already suffer from those conditions,” Lovgren said last year. “There’s a possible association with cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes, and a growing body of evidence to show association with pneumonia and bronchitis and other respiratory infections.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also come out with research linking wildfire smoke to an increased risk of complications from COVID-19.
“Wildfire smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system, and make you more prone to lung infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that cause COVID-19,” reads the CDC website.
Melnick said it’s important for people to take precautions such as limiting their time outside and reducing physical activity. People should also close windows and doors and set their air conditioning units to recirculate, if they have air conditioning. Avoid burning candles, using aerosol products, frying food and smoking.
“We need to protect ourselves,” Melnick said.