Northwest fight for clean air getting serious

Region wildfires along with local range fires such as this Aug. 2, 2017, brushfire near Rochester kept Thurston County’s air smoky last summer.
Region wildfires along with local range fires such as this Aug. 2, 2017, brushfire near Rochester kept Thurston County’s air smoky last summer. Olympian file photo

Seattle’s air quality was measured at a level three times worse than in notoriously awful Beijing on Wednesday. This is scandalous, and we felt the scratchy throats all the way to Olympia.

Despite some clearing of wildfire smoke today, this plague of smoke should wake us all from any rain-soaked sense of clean-air security in the Puget Sound region.

A manifesto for clean air is in order.

Wildfires are hitting new records in Eastern Washington, state officials say. Along with major fires in British Columbia that sent plumes southward to our neighborhoods, we are witnessing a regional smoke hazard that may be a harbinger of an ugly future shaped in part by climate change.

As the Seattle Times reported this week, we are in the midst of a second summer in a row with heavy smoke problems. Though not quite a trend, the newspaper quotes scientists to say this is new and a signal we should heed.

The upshot: Clean air is not a given. And our situation in Puget Sound may be changing for the worse – even if it is mainly an episodic affliction during wildfire season.

Giving it all a hack, possibly a spit, and no further thought? That is the wrong response.

A report issued Thursday by Environment Washington Research & Policy Center, an advocacy group, cited a new report that says 3.8 million people were exposed to degraded air quality on 26 days in 2016 in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area – which was before the latest smoke episodes. https://environmentwashingtoncenter.org/reports/wac/trouble-air

How bad is it? Seattle’s Air Pollution Index (or API) reading of 154 on Wednesday was slightly above India’s air-pollution center in megacity Mumbai and far above the 51 in Beijing.

Marine air coming into Puget Sound was driving down the levels – and health risk – on Thursday and we may see clearing. But winds and wildfires could reverse things early next week.

There are a lot of steps we all can support. First, this is no time to be letting up on federal, state or local regulations of industrial, auto or other emissions.

Second, our state must continue the forest health initiatives under way at our state Department of Natural Resources to remove dead trees in diseased forests. This goes for our federal forests, too — and one federal agency released a new strategy for that Thursday.

Controlled burns may have value for forest health, but so does removing insect damaged trees that are ripe for explosive fires in the West – highlighted by those in California.

Having ample federal and state budgets to fight fires or limit the spread of fires is also a piece of the picture.

Our Legislature has improved funding to boost the firefighting skills of DNR and its regional allies. A data review after this fire season should help inform lawmakers of the next strategic steps that are needed.

All of that is high level stuff and hard to relate to.

More urgently we all should enhance our understanding of how precious clean air is – and why everyone deserves access to it.

We won’t ask that loved ones try smothering each other briefly for educational purposes. But we all could learn by asking a friend or neighbor who is staying indoors or close to an air filter this week.

Sure, nature has its inherent challenges for those who struggle to breathe – whether it’s pollen causing seasonal allergy flare-ups or natural fires billowing smoke.

The point is we should not be adding to the air problems that nature already provides – such as seasonal allergens. No one should have to breathe without fear of man-made or human-enhanced pollutants.

Which brings us to a small but significant local action taken this week by our Thurston County commissioners, who deserve plaudits. Acting as the county Board of Health, they passed a no-smoking ordinance for county parks, which includes tobacco smoking and vaping.

The ban was based on concern for the individual health risks of using tobacco or experiencing the smoke second hand. In a press release commissioners noted that many youths who vape go on to use regular tobacco products.

Our state’s voters agreed to ban smoking in bars, restaurants and public places many years ago. That law put limits in some outdoor places – for example around the doorways of such establishments.

The county’s’ action is a signal the rules have needed tightening.

Whatever your gut reaction, everyone should use this moment to pause, take a metaphoric deep breath, and think of what else we can do in our communities to reduce the air quality risks that come from drier summers associated with global warming, the higher risks of wildfire, poor forest health all across the West, emissions of all kinds – and yes, even the unnecessary use of tobacco products in public places.

A shift in winds – pushing smoke back to the north – may come any day or hour. So we may get relief. But we need solutions.