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When Will Smoke Clear Out Of Northwest Skies? Not As Soon As We'd All Hoped

Pacific NW Team 2 IMT
Pacific NW Team 2 IMT. Smoke from the Big Windy Complex Fire near Galice, Oregon.
File photo. Smoke from 2020 fires in the Northwest and coming up from California has innundated the region this week, as it has in years past.

Well, the weather didn’t pan out as forecasters had hoped. That means smoke should stick around until the end of this week. And, it’s not only the skies that are choked with the unhealthy levels of smoke.

“The cleanest air in (Washington) right now is unhealthy, and everybody else is very unhealthy or hazardous,” said Lauren Jenks, Washington Department of Health assistant secretary for environmental public health. 

The National Weather Service predictsthose conditions will last through at least Friday.

Most worrying, Jenks says, are short-term health problems people face when dealing with this much smoke. Everything from headaches to irritated eyes and itchy throats to trouble breathing, shortness of breath and wheezing.

Often, doctors and hospitals will see an uptick of patients when smoke fills the skies, Jenks says, although she says she’s not sure how many hospitalizations occurred in the state this weekend.

Long-term problems

Doctors have also raised concerns about long-term problems of smoke exposure, as people experience these sorts of days year after year. Those problems could be particularly bad for people who have chronic lung and heart conditions, Dr. Sam Joseph said in a 2018 interview during another bad year for smoke in the region.

“In all smoke exposure, you’re exposed to lots of particles and chemicals,” Joseph said at the time. “Some of the chemicals include carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and particulate matter, which we call soot.”

That small particulate matter is the most dangerous, he said.

Another long-term concern, particularly in 2020, is people’s mental health. Jenks says people who live near the fires that are burning have reported long-term concerns.

“That is a combination of things. It’s the trauma of being in a fire, and maybe losing their home. It’s emotional impacts and mental health impacts, and some very intense and long-term exposure to the smoke,” Jenks said.

There needs to be more research on long-term health effects of wildfires and wildfire smoke, she said.

In the meantime, people should avoid heading outside. That can lead to more physical isolation during the pandemic because people shouldn’t gather indoors.

“It’s a longer period of time where we need to be isolated,” Jenks said. “That can be really hard for people. When we pile on: we’ve got the pandemic, we’ve got the fires and the smoke impacts. This is really a lot of people to deal with.”

What about working out?

Indoors, people shouldn’t workout too vigorously – something that could help relieve tension. Heading outdoors to exercise with a cloth mask (which won’t help reduce smoke inhalation) or an N-95 mask (which will do a better job) should still be avoided to protect your lungs, Jenks said.

“N-95s provide a lot more protection, but they are harder to breathe through. So it’s not a good idea to put an N-95 mask on and then try to do exercise,” she said.

If you must go outside, an N-95 mask is your best option. But, they aren’t fitted to children; they don’t protect people with facial hair that get in the way of a good seal.

“We recommend them for times when you can absolutely not avoid being outside,” Jenks said.

Don’t turn your house into Scarborough Fair

A home remedy people have been chasing to help with smoke seeping indoors is also a bad idea, Jenks said. Some social media posts have recommended boiling herbs like sage, rosemary and thyme.

“It really does just put more particles in the air, particularly some of the oils and the herbs that could cause additional irritation,” she said.

Instead, Jenks recommends that if you need more humidity, just drink water or tea.

Better ways to improve indoor air quality are to keep doors and windows closed, set air conditioners to recirculate, use air purifiers with HEPA filters or make a DIY box fan with an air filter secured in place (here’s a video of how).

“While you’re staying inside, those filters are your best bet for making sure you’re breathing clean air as much as possible inside your house.”