Posted on June 13, 2022 at 6:00 am
With the arrival of summer comes the concern about wildfires and the potential for another summer with smoke-filled days.
The threat of wildfires is real, and work is underway by many federal, state, and local agencies to reduce this threat. We also know that the threat of significant smoke is real.
In seven of the last 10 summers, there were 59 days when our local air quality failed to meet health-based standards due to wildfire smoke. Those days meant deciding when and where to move outdoor activities indoors and whether to postpone or cancel summer camps, swimming lessons, and so many other activities we enjoy during summer.
These major inconveniences pale in comparison to the health consequences of breathing smoke, especially for our most vulnerable residents and visitors.
At Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, we monitor air pollutants and report levels using the Air Quality Index (AQI). Concentrations of pollutants are converted to the AQI. The AQI ranges start at 0–50 (good air quality/green) all the way to 301–500 (hazardous air quality/maroon). We provide a current AQI on our website that updates hourly, as well as two-day AQI forecasts so that people can make choices to protect their health.
When smoke is increasing and expected to reach unhealthy levels, our agency and the Spokane Regional Health District work together to inform the public on how they can protect themselves and others from smoke exposure.
The time to prepare and act is now, before the smoke arrives.
Together with other agencies, we promote the annual Smoke Ready Week. Each day from June 13–17, we and our partners highlight actions that you can take now, in your own home or business, to prepare and why it is important to do so. Through our websites (SRHD, SRCAA), social media, articles like this, community events, and with the help of our local news media, we will provide this vital information throughout the summer.
Smoke from wildfires contains gases and fine particles. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles—or PM2.5, which is particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller (see the image below to get an idea of how small 2.5 micrometers is). The size of particles is linked to their potential for causing health problems. Fine particles are considered more harmful because they travel deeper into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.
The national, health-based standard for PM2.5 is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over 24-hours, from midnight to midnight. This standard is equivalent to 100 on the AQI scale. An AQI over 100 means the health standard is not being met, which has happened on 59 days during seven of the last 10 summers.
Even if you are in good health, it is a good idea to avoid breathing smoke. When inhaled, particles bypass our bodies’ normal defenses, traveling deep into the lungs and even entering the bloodstream.
Breathing wildfire smoke can worsen many health problems and cause minor to serious symptoms like headaches, stinging eyes, running nose, coughing, and trouble breathing. Fine particles can worsen chronic heart and lung diseases and have been linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions.
There are groups considered “most sensitive” to air pollution. These include infants and children, pregnant women, adults 65 and older, and people with heart and lung disease.
Those in the smoke sensitive groups should discuss having a plan in place with their healthcare team before the smoke arrives.
The first thing to do to prepare for smoke is to know where to access the current air quality and air quality forecasts.
During a wildfire smoke “event,” air quality can change rapidly, so check out the various online resources listed below and bookmark (save) your favorites.
Online AQI and smoke resources
Your indoor air quality
The best way to protect your health is to reduce your exposure to smoke by limiting or avoiding time spent outdoors. It’s critical to keep your indoor air as clean as possible. Here are some ways to do this:
There are many resources and detailed fact sheets available on a host of wildfire smoke-related topics developed by state and federal agencies. You can find many of these resources on the Spokane Clean Air website.
While we can’t predict how bad the smoke may be this summer, each of us can work on being prepared!
Lisa Woodard is the Communications & Outreach Manager for Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency and a WSU alum. A favorite aspect of her work is inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards. Her lifelong passion for protecting our environment was lit in elementary school after attending the U.S. Forest Service’s production of “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute,” featuring Woodsy the Owl. She also loves owls.