Thursday, 24 Sep 2020

Choking air from West Coast fires just won’t ease up

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Relief from putrid, dangerous air spewing from massive wildfires across the West won’t come until later in the week or beyond, scientists and forecasters say, and the hazy and gunk-filled skies might stick around for even longer.

People in Oregon, Washington and parts of California were struggling under acrid yellowish-green smog — the worst, most unhealthy air on the planet according to some measurements. It seeped into homes and businesses, sneaked into cars through air conditioning vents and caused the closure of iconic locations such as Powell’s Books and the Oregon Zoo in Portland, the state’s biggest city.

“I don’t think that we should be outside, but at the same time, we’ve been cooped up in the house already for months so it’s kind of hard to dictate what’s good and what’s bad. I mean, we shouldn’t be outside period,” said Issa Ubidia-Luckett, a Portland resident, who was grabbing lunch on Monday.

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality extended an air quality alert to Thursday after it was to initially expire on Monday. The air was so thick that on Monday Alaska Airlines announced it was suspending service to Portland and Spokane, Washington, until Tuesday afternoon. Hazy, smoky skies fouled Washington state and experts said some parts of California might not see relief until next month.

Zoe Flanagan, who has lived in Portland for 12 years, has barely left the house but braved the smog to walk her two dogs on Monday. On Sunday, Flanagan and her husband, in desperation, turned on the heater, which has a better filter than their air conditioning.

“I can feel it in my chest and then I just feel hungover despite not drinking,” she said. “I felt really hungover all day Saturday. I just couldn’t get enough water, I had a headache.”

Related: California Wildfires

61 PHOTOSCalifornia wildfiresSee GalleryCalifornia wildfiresIn this image taken with a slow shutter speed, embers light up a hillside behind the Bidwell Bar Bridge as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)A bicycle burns on an unattended property near Del Dios Highway in the Rancho Santa Fe area of San Diego, California October 23, 2007. 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(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)The Creek Fire burns in the Sierra National Forest, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, near Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Firefighters stage near a Southern California Edison power station to protect it from the advancing Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)A firefighter covers himself from flying embers while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Members of the Laguna Hotshots, out of the Cleveland National Forest, walk down a hillside while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)TOPSHOT – A charred swing set and car are seen after the passage of the Santiam Fire in Gates, Oregon, on September 10, 2020. – California firefighters battled the state’s largest ever inferno on September 10, as tens of thousands of people fled blazes up and down the US West Coast and officials warned the death toll could shoot up in coming days. At least eight people have been confirmed dead in the past 24 hours across California, Oregon and Washington, but officials say some areas are still impossible to reach, meaning the number is likely to rise. (Photo by Kathryn ELSESSER / AFP) (Photo by KATHRYN ELSESSER/AFP via Getty Images)A firefighter uses a hose to try to extinguish flames from a burning structure while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Members of the Laguna Hotshots, out of the Cleveland National Forest, monitor hot spots while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)A member of the Laguna Hotshots, out of the Cleveland National Forest, monitors flames caused by the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Smoke from the Bobcat Fire is seen from California State Highway 39 in Azusa, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020 The heat wave was expected to spread triple-digit temperatures over much of California through Monday. Temperatures in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles reached 116 degrees (46 Celsius) for the second day in a row, forecasters said. (AP Photo/Christian Monterrosa)Gabe Huck, right, a member of a San Benito Monterey Cal Fire crew, stands along state Highway 168 while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Smoke from wildfires clouds the sky over greater Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, as seen from Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/John Antczak)Firefighters ignite a controlled burn with drip torches while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)A firefighter runs along state Highway 168 with a flare as part of a controlled burn to fight the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Firefighter Ricardo Gomez, of a San Benito Monterey Cal Fire crew, sets a controlled burn with a drip torch while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)CORRECTS MONTH TO SEPTEMBER INSTEAD OF AUGUST – People load water into their car in front of a Trader Joe’s grocery store as smoke from the Bobcat Fire rises in the background, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Azusa, Calif. (AP Photo/Christian Monterrosa)A firefighter watches the advancing Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Firefighters stage along the lake while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)A firefighter walks along state Highway 168 with a drip torch during a controlled burn to fight the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)A firefighter uses a drip torch to ignite a controlled burn as he fights the Creek Fire along state Highway 168, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Smoke from the Creek Fire fills the air over a boating dock, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Gabe Huck, a member of a San Benito Monterey Cal Fire crew, walks along state Highway 168 while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Los Angeles Fire Department personnel work to douse several small brush fires in the Sepulveda Basin in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters hike into the Sepulveda Basin to fight a brush fire in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. 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Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A firefighter works on hotspot at a wildfire in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A helicopter drops water at wildfire burns near homes at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A helicopter drops water at wildfire burns near homes at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A wildfire burns at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)Los Angeles fire department firefighters work to put out a brush fire in the Sepulveda Basin in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. 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Dylan Darling, a spokesman for the state’s department of Environmental Quality, said: “I grew up in Oregon and lived here a long time, and to see this much smoke for this long and wide spreading, really stands out in the state’s history.”

Some areas of central California blanketed by smoke are not likely to see relief until October, said Dan Borsum, the incident meteorologist for a fire in Northern California.

“It’s going to take a substantially strong weather pattern to move all the smoke,” Borsum told a fire briefing Sunday night. He said smoke from dozens of wildfires in the West and throughout California is pooling in the Central Valley, which already has some of California’s worst air quality even when wildfires are not burning.

Joe Smith, advocacy director for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, which attends to homeless people, said California’s capital city hasn’t seen consistent blue skies in weeks. People experiencing homelessness have grappled with an unrelenting onslaught of virus, searing heat and now, polluted air they can’t escape.

“Some of the toughest folks you’ll ever meet are people who live outdoors, unhoused, but it is getting to them,” he said. “We’ve got COVID-19, followed by excessive heat wave, followed by smoke. What’s going to start falling out of the air next on these poor folks?”

Twana James, who lives in a tent in Sacramento, coughed several times during a brief phone interview Monday, trying to clear her throat. She said her voice is not usually so hoarse.

“We got hella ashes from the fires, everything is covered in ashes,” she said. “It’s hard to breathe.”

In Oregon, places like the Oregon Convention Center in downtown Portland are being used as a smoke advisory shelter where people in need of healthy air quality can go.

Darling said typically during wildfires in Oregon, such as those in 2017 that carried heavy smoke to the Willamette Valley and Eugene area, people can escape to other areas of the state for clean air.

“That’s what’s standing out — there just isn’t a place in Oregon right now to find fresh air,” Darling said.

State officials say they are collecting data to see how these fires compare to those in the past and the effects, not only on people’s health but also the environment.

Tyler Kranz, a meteorologist at Portland’s National Weather Service office, said for the smoke to disperse Oregon will need strong enough winds blowing from the ocean towards land — but there needs to be a “perfect balance” of wind so that it disperses smoke but doesn’t further ignite fires.

“We need the winds to get the smoke out of here,” Kranz said. “We just don’t want them to be too strong, because then they could fan those flames and all of a sudden those fires are spreading again.”

As she ate lunch at a popular burger place east of Portland, one of only a few places open, Ubidia-Luckett said the smoke reminded her of stories long-time Portland residents tell about the thick ash that fell on the city when Mount St. Helen’s erupted in nearby Washington state in 1980. There was so much ash that for weeks many residents wore masks and had to clear ash off their cars.

After beginning the meal outside, Ubidia-Luckett and her 6-year-old son soon moved inside because the air was too much to take. The boy was with her because his first day of kindergarten was postponed Monday for the second time due to the hazardous air conditions.

“That’s the hard part for little kids. They’re so cooped up so what do you do?” she asked. “Eventually, they want to go outside.”

 

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