'We need the winds': A plea to push out West Coast wildfire smog

Oregon, Washington, and parts of California are awash in thick smog from wildfires in the area, and clean air isn't forecast until later in the week. Experts say parts of California might not see relief until next month.

Gillian Flaccus/AP
From the East Bank Esplanade, downtown Portland, Oregon, can be seen blanketed in smoke on Sept. 14, 2020. People experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to the smog, and experts are hoping for wind to clear the air without aggravating more fires.

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, Ms. Flanagan and her husband, in desperation, turned on the heater, which has a better filter than their air conditioning.

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,” Mr. Borsum said at 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?”

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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, Ms. 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, Ms. Ubidia-Luckett and her young 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.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Janie Har and Juliet Williams in San Francisco contributed to this report.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.