Wildfire smoke blankets area, causes air quality to plummet

Rain, relief from smoky conditions expected this weekend

A fishing boat cruises by the Washougal Waterfront Park on Friday, Sept. 11. Smoke from wildfires burning throughout Oregon and California have severely reduced air quality in Camas-Washougal. The air quality in Clark County on Friday was in the hazardous zone, with no relief expected until at least Sunday. (Photos by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

A sign on Highway 14 between Camas and Vancouver reminds drivers to "Mask Up, Stay Safe" on Friday, Sept. 11. Smoke from wildfires burning throughout Oregon and California have made the air quality in Clark County dip into the "hazardous" zone this week. (Photo by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

A photo of the Big Hollow fire, burning east and north of the Trapper Creek Wilderness in the Mt. Adams Ranger District, which has prompted Level 1 and 2 (Get Ready and Get Set) evacuation notices in North Clark County. (Photo courtesy of Gifford Pinchot National Forest Service)

Thick smoke from wildfires burning throughout Washington, Oregon and California blanketed the Camas-Washougal area this week, bringing with it hazardous air quality conditions and school, business and public building closures. 

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, the National Weather Service issued an update on the smoke, stating that forecasts showed air conditions would remain hazardous in Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon through Friday, Sept. 18.

“Stay indoors in an air conditioned or filtered building if possible,” the Weather Service advised Tuesday. “Persons with chronic respiratory conditions or illnesses should remain indoors to avoid inhaling smoke. If driving, slow down, use low beam headlights and leave plenty of distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you.” 

The National Weather Service’s weather forecast for this week shows a chance of rain showers and thunderstorms Thursday night and “widespread smoke” in the area before 11 p.m. Thursday. Showers and possible thunderstorms after 2 p.m. are forecast for Friday, Sept. 18, with up to one-half inch of rain possible. Showers also are in the forecast for Friday night and throughout the day Saturday. 

As of Thursday morning, AirNow showed the air quality in Camas-Washougal had decreased, going from 340 earlier in the week to 373 Thursday. Both numbers put the area in the “hazardous” air quality range. Air quality in Stevenson, about 28 miles east of Washougal in the Columbia River Gorge, remained in the “unhealthy” category Thursday morning. 

Wildfires continue to burn in Northwest Oregon, Southwest Washington

Most of the smoke is coming from wildfires burning in Oregon and California. As of Thursday, there were at least 35 wildfires burning in Oregon, including the Riverside Fire near the town of Estacada, Oregon, which has burned more than 135,000 acres; the Beachie Creek Fire in Marion County, Oregon, which has burned nearly 200,000 and is just one mile away from the Riverside Fire; the Holiday Farm Fire outside Springfield, Oregon, which has burned more than 300 buildings; and the Lionshead Fire in the Cascade Mountain Range, which has decimated the small town of Detroit, Oregon, and burned nearly 170,000 acres. The Almeda fire in southern Oregon, which destroyed approximately 600 homes and killed at least four people, is now 100 percent contained. 

In Southwest Washington, the Big Hollow Fire, located about 15 miles northwest of Carson, continued to burn this week. Parts of the area around the Big Hollow Fire are under a Level 1 “Get Ready” evacuation order, including the towns of Amboy and Yacolt in northwest Clark County and a Level 3 “Go” order for Government Mineral Springs.

On Thursday, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA) reported that the fire had burned 22,973 acres and was 15 percent contained. Crews working on the Big Hollow Fire increased this week, with 327 firefighters working to contain the fire compared to 262 fire personnel earlier in the week. 

Tips for staying healthy on smoky days 

Smoke from the wildfires can cause health problems, especially in sensitive groups. PeaceHealth recently offered tips on staying healthy during the smoky conditions: 

  • Stay indoors and keep doors and windows closed. Use wet cloths to plug up any cracks where smoke may seep through. 
  • Keep indoor air clean by using a portable air purifier. Run an air conditioner to keep air circulating, but close the fresh-air intake. Use HEPA or MERV-3 filters to trap pollutants. 
  • Do not add to indoor air pollution by burning incense, candles, fireplaces or cigarettes. Refrain from vacuuming, as it can stir up particles in the home. 
  • Stay hydrated and drink water to help your body fend off particles and other irritants in the air. Use artificial tears or saline to help moisten eyes. 
  • Regular cloth masks do not protect against wildfire smoke. If you must go outside, wear a respirator mask marked “NIOSH” with N95 or P100. 
  • When driving, keep windows closed and turn the air conditioner to “recirculate” mode to lower particle levels in vehicles. Be sure to vent air occasionally so you do not build up carbon dioxide levels, which can make you sleepy. 
  • Remember to care for pets and keep them inside as much as possible. 
  • Have an evacuation plan in place in case you need to leave your home (in the event of a local wildfire). See a list of steps to take at cdc.gov/disasters/wildfires/beforefire.html

“Wildfire smoke can irritate your lungs and affect your immune system making you more prone to lung infections, including the virus that causes COVID-19,” PeaceHealth warned in its news release. “People who currently have or have had the coronavirus may be at increased risk of health effects due to their lung and/or heart function being compromised by the virus.”