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Sept. 20, 2020

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Clark County is worst in state as Washington sets record for hazardous air

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
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Motorists traveling on Highway 99 navigate thick wildfire smoke as it continues to choke the region.
Motorists traveling on Highway 99 navigate thick wildfire smoke as it continues to choke the region. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Washington has recorded its longest-running period with hazardous air quality in at least the last 14 years, and Clark County has registered the worst air quality in the state during a record-setting period.

Fine particulate (PM 2.5) levels in Vancouver briefly dipped into the “very unhealthy” range Tuesday night but had risen back to hazardous levels before midnight. The PM 2.5 level was at 309 as of data available at 6:45 a.m.

The National Weather Service has an air quality alert in place until noon Thursday, but it canceled dense fog and smoke advisories, with visibility still impaired but improved from levels of the past several days.

The state Department of Ecology’s current records, which date back to 2006, show that the past week’s hazardous air quality is without precedent in that period.

Washington has experienced longer times with prolonged unhealthy air, but nothing as prolonged and acute as what is happening now.

In 2017 and 2018, Washington spent much more time with compromised air, but far less time with hazardous air. According to Ecology’s smoke blog, hazardous air quality has not lasted this long in Washington since 2006. In the past week, much of that hazardous air has been spread throughout the entire state.

Northwest and Southeast Washington have had the “cleanest” and fewest bad days, respectively, according to Ecology. The worst air quality has settled in Southwest Washington.

“Southern Yakima county followed by parts of Okanogan County had the most number of polluted days this month, but the worst air was recorded in the Columbia River Gorge and Clark County,” the blog reads.

Uri Papish, the executive director for Southwest Clean Air Agency, said it’s the worst prolonged hazardous air the region has had since he became executive director six years ago.

“It’s unusual to have this bad of air quality for this long,” Papish said.

Papish said Southwest Washington generally experiences its worst air quality in the winter, when wood-burning and other heating sources can lead to air pollution. In the winter, cold temperatures keep the pollution closer to ground level.

But in the last five years Southwest Washington has started to see more air pollution in warmer months, Papish said. Wildfire smoke pollution is the main reason.

It’s a worry connected to climate change, Papish said.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, the “number of people reporting asthma-like symptoms jumped 88 percent over the average on recent smoke-free days.” The people reporting those asthma-like symptoms accounted for 10 percent of all emergency room and urgent care visits.

“My main concern is the health of the people in Southwest Washington and how many bad air quality days they are exposed to and the health effects those days may have on people,” Papish said.

Papish said wind patterns have brought smoke up from Oregon and California wildfires. Wind from a higher elevation has created an inversion layer with the smoke below, where there is not much wind, which is trapping the smoke in place.

Papish said an incoming weather system is expected to clear things up considerably on Thursday night and Friday.

“It’s likely it will be good enough for people to go outside, but no promises,” Papish said.

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