Smoke clogs rest of West

SEATTLE — Smoke from wildfires clogged the sky across the U.S. West, blotting out mountains and city skylines all the way to Colorado, delaying flights and forcing authorities to tell even healthy adults in the Seattle area to stay indoors.

As large cities dealt with unhealthy air for a second summer in a row, experts warned that it could become more common as the American West faces larger and more destructive wildfires because of heat and drought blamed on climate change. Officials also must prioritize resources during the longer firefighting season, so some blazes may be allowed to burn in unpopulated areas.

Seattle’s Space Needle was swathed in haze, and it was impossible to see nearby mountains. Portland residents who were up early saw a blood-red sun shrouded in smoke. Portland Public Schools suspended all outdoor sports practices.

Thick smoke in Denver blocked the view of some of Colorado’s famous mountains and prompted an air quality health advisory for the northeastern quarter of the state. The smoky pollution, even in Idaho and Colorado, came from wildfires in British Columbia and the Cascade Mountains, clouding a season that many spend outdoors.

Forest fires are common, but typical Seattle-area weather pushes it out of the way quickly. The latest round of prolonged smoke happened as hot temperatures and high pressure collided, said Andrew Wineke, a spokesman for the state Ecology Department’s air quality program. It’s a rare occurrence that also happened last year, raising concerns for many locals that it may become normal during wildfire season.

“The trend is clear. You see the number of forest fires increasing, and so there’s going to be wildfires,” Wineke said. “There’s going to be smoke. It’s going to be somewhere.”

— The Associated Press

Central Oregonians awoke Monday morning to a new round of wildfire smoke blanketing the area. However, the smoke is largely unrelated to the spate of new fires in the region, according to fire experts.

Following a weekend that brought sweet relief from the worst of the wildfire smoke, air quality began declining across Central Oregon before dawn on Monday morning. By the afternoon, it had reached levels considered unhealthy for everyone in Bend, Madras, Prineville and Sisters, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. In response to the smoke, Oregon DEQ issued an air quality advisory for all of Central and Eastern Oregon on Monday morning.

“This is definitely the worst air quality we’ve seen in recent weeks,” said Katherine Benenati, spokeswoman for Oregon DEQ.

The rest of the state is suffering from the smoke as well. Benenati said the only counties without an air quality advisory as of Monday afternoon were Coos and Curry counties. And conditions may not improve for several days.

This time around, however, the culprit is not the smattering of fires burning in the region, or even the fires burning in southwest Oregon. Instead, the smoke is coming primarily from a collection of fires engulfing parts of Washington and British Columbia. The smoke was blown down to Oregon by an ever-so-slight prevailing southern wind, according to Rob Brooks, forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Pendleton office.

Central Oregon has seen smoke for a good chunk of the summer, though conditions remained relatively clear compared to the Rogue Valley, where smoke from nearby wildfires has blanketed the region for weeks, according to Oregon DEQ.

Air quality improved near the end of last week, thanks in part to a series of thunderstorms that swept across Central and Eastern Oregon. Brooks said the wind and rain from the storms helped move some of the smoke out of the area.

However, the storms were accompanied by “several hundred” lightning strikes across the region, which started a series of wildfires, primarily north of Bend, according to Lauren DuRocher, spokeswoman for the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center.

The largest of the fires is the Stubblefield Fire in south Gilliam County, which merged with another wildfire on Sunday night to burn around 20,000 acres in the region, prompting a series of Level 1 (get ready) and Level 2 (get set) evacuation notices in the area. All told, fires in the area have burned around 30,500 acres and were 20 percent contained as of Monday afternoon.

Slightly to the south, the Jennie’s Peak Fire, a lightning-caused fire about 13 miles south of Fossil, has burned about 18,000 acres, prompting evacuations in the area.

On the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, the Tenino Fire sparked from a lightning strike on Friday and has grown to 9,431 acres, according to Bobby Brunoe, general manager of natural resources for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Brunoe said about 55 people are fighting the fire, with 20 fire engines, two bulldozers and one light helicopter currently engaged. The fire was 60 percent contained as of Monday afternoon.

“We’re feeling a lot better than we were over the last couple days,” Brunoe said Monday.

While the fires are all likely too small and too remote to have a huge impact on smoke in Bend, Brooks said the storms that sparked them were carried by a south-bound prevailing wind that brought smoke from Washington and British Columbia to Oregon. Large fires in the area include the McLeod and Crescent Mountain fires in Washington, and the Shovel Lake Fire in British Columbia.

In Central Oregon, Benenati said the smoke is expected to linger through Thursday. She advised Central Oregonians to limit their exposure to the air, and to avoid strenuous outdoor activities.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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