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News / Northwest

As historic smoke blankets the East Coast, Northwest leaders hope Congress will wake up to the wildfire threat

By Orion Donovan-Smith, The Spokesman-Review
Published: June 9, 2023, 7:47am

WASHINGTON — The nation’s capital woke up Thursday to the impact of catastrophic wildfires — perhaps in more ways than one — as smoke from nearly 10 million acres ablaze in Canada blanketed the East Coast.

The District of Columbia was under a “code purple” alert on the U.S. Air Quality Index — higher than code red, indicating it had “very unhealthy” air — when the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources convened a well-timed hearing Thursday morning on the federal response to wildfires. Senators on the panel from Washington and Idaho said they hoped the eye-stinging haze would spur Congress to act on proposals aimed at addressing a problem that has at times been treated as too parochial to be a federal priority.

“I think America is waking up, at least on the East Coast, to this problem,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “We certainly have known all about it on the West Coast for some time now, and I think that it is a time and opportunity for us to really break down the barriers that are prohibiting us from having a faster response.”

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, echoed that sentiment, and called on his colleagues to pass several bills he has sponsored to accelerate prescribed burns and other forest management practices that have been shown to reduce the risk of extreme fires.

As smoke blankets the U.S., take some tips from WA to reduce exposure

Wildfire smoke from Canada sent air quality plummeting in the eastern United States, giving New York and other cities a rare whiff of what has become a common experience in Seattle and other northwest cities.

The hazardous haze delayed flights and prompted warnings to residents to stay inside and limit outdoor activities.

Seattle got an unseasonably early hazy sky in mid-May when Canadian wildfire smoke stuck around the upper atmosphere, largely not impacting air quality.

A “smoke season” has materialized in King County in the last five years, with more days of unhealthy levels of pollution each year than in the past. Between 2000 and 2017, King County residents suffered at most one to two days of bad air a year.

Breathing in fine particulate matter from smoke, known as PM2.5, can contribute to respiratory, cardiovascular and other health problems, especially for vulnerable groups. For others, it means days huddling next to an air purifier with windows closed, avoiding exercise or other outdoor activities.

Washington is seeing an early glimpse of the upcoming wildfire season this week as more than 800 acres in Yakima County burned near Old Naches Highway. The blaze is so far the year’s biggest wildfire, after a debris burn grew to 89 acres in Skagit County last month.

  • What will this year’s wildfire season look like?

Compared with past years, Washington is having an unusually warm and dry spring.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, nearly all of the state is expected to have above-normal risk for significant fires between July and September. Central Oregon will also have similarly above-normal fire risk.

Western Washington has seen less than 25% of its average precipitation over the past month, meaning the warm, dry and windy weather has heightened fire risk in the region.

The National Weather Service issued an early-season red flag warning for hot, dry and unstable conditions for the west slopes of the Cascades on Tuesday and the King County fire marshal issued a Stage 1 burn ban on Thursday.

  • Preparing for wildfire season

Essential supplies can sell out the day or the days before smoke blankets the city. Make sure you’re stocked up on an air purifier or even inexpensive DIY supplies to make one yourself with a box fan and a MERV 13 or FPR 10 filter.

Experts advise choosing a room to function as a “clean room,” where everyone in your house can comfortably fit and exit if needed. Your air filter device should live here, and doors and windows should be kept closed. A damp mop or rag can be used to clean to avoid sending particles back into the air.

Those surgical masks and bandannas from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic won’t do you any good. Make sure you have NIOSH N95 or P100 masks on hand to protect from fine particle pollution, though experts say masks should only be worn after implementing other, more effective methods of exposure reduction like staying indoors.

Make sure you’re stocked up on food, medication, nonperishable groceries that don’t require cooking and other supplies so you don’t need to go outside unnecessarily.

  • Worst air quality in the world?

In recent days, New York City has claimed the unfortunate title of having some of the worst air in the U.S. and globally, according to IQAir, a Swiss air-quality technology company that also operates a real-time air-quality information platform.

On Thursday afternoon, New York City was ranked as the fifth-worst air quality in a city worldwide.

In late October 2022, Seattle ranked as the worst city worldwide for air quality and pollution at one point, as wildfires raged in the Cascades. That day, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., also took top ranks next to Lahore, Pakistan and Delhi India.

  • How to keep tabs

Live and local air quality information can be found at airnow.gov or Washington smoke information at wasmoke.blogspot.com. You also track wildfires currently burning within the U.S. at weather.gov/fire and inciweb.nwcg.gov.

“For those of you who live on the East Coast, welcome to our air in the West,” Risch said. “This is common. I don’t remember a summer in Boise when we haven’t had smoke.”

The Washington Nationals postponed their game Thursday, and the White House delayed a Pride Month celebration as smoke drifted across the Northeast. More than 100 million Americans were under Air Quality Index alerts, according to the White House, due to the smoke from one of Canada’s worst wildfire seasons on record. More than 425 active wildfires had burned nearly 10 million acres in the United States’ neighbor to the north, 17 times the country’s average over the past two decades.

The National Interagency Fire Center was sending more than 600 federal and state wildland firefighters and support personnel to help control the fires in Canada, the White House said. With the U.S. fire season just beginning, Cantwell showed the committee the latest assessment from the Boise-based agency, which projects that nearly all of Washington state will be facing “above normal” risk of wildfires by July.

While Democrats emphasized the role climate change plays in worsening fire seasons and Republicans stressed the need to ramp up timber projects and other forest management practices, the hearing highlighted areas of bipartisan agreement. One proposal with support from both parties in the House and Senate would expand the “Good Neighbor Authority” program that lets states, tribes and counties remove trees and other fuels from federal land with the federal government’s approval.

As they questioned witnesses from the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service, Democrats also called for Congress to fully fund President Joe Biden’s budget request for those agencies, which would give wildland firefighters a permanent pay hike and provide additional funding for their mental and physical health. It would also fund affordable housing for those workers and increase funding to the Forest Service and Interior Department.

Jeffrey Rupert, the director of the Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire, told the senators hotter climates have dried out wood and other fuels, which his agency wants to remove more of through prescribed burns, timber harvesting and other methods.

“We go through these periods of extreme drought,” Rupert said. “That absolutely is a huge part of driving these catastrophic mega-fires that we’re experiencing.”

Cantwell urged federal agencies to adopt communication technologies that could help speed their response to wildfires. She also advocated more prescribed burns, noting that opposition to setting small, controlled fires to remove fuel can be counterproductive.

“People were like, ‘Well, there will be some smoke,’ ” she said, describing opponents of the practice. “Well, because we’re not doing prescribed burns, we’re getting a whole lot of smoke, OK? So the point is, let’s change our management system response so that we can reduce fire risk. This summer is telling us we need to do that now.”

Risch, who earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry from the University of Idaho, urged Congress to change regulations that environmentalists have used to slow or block timber projects and noted that wildfires are a natural part of the landscape of the West.

“For years, we have focused on putting out fires,” he said. “And by being successful at it, we’ve caused the problem that we’ve got.”

In the House, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, released a statement Thursday calling for Congress to act.

“The wildfire smoke blanketing the East Coast of the United States is an unfortunate reminder of what we have dealt with in Eastern Washington — every single summer — for decades,” she said. “With this issue getting more national attention, it is a call to work together on solutions like supporting proactive and collaborative forest management, which I’ve led on for years, to prevent catastrophic wildfires in the United States. Ensuring our forests are healthy is the key to keeping our communities safe and helping shield everyone from the harms of poor air quality.”