B.C., local wildfires hurting air quality in Whatcom County

Haze from British Columbia forest fires obscures the view of downtown Bellingham from Chandler Parkway on Monday afternoon, July 6, 2015.
Haze from British Columbia forest fires obscures the view of downtown Bellingham from Chandler Parkway on Monday afternoon, July 6, 2015. The Bellingham Herald

Wildfires just over the border in British Columbia and locally are spewing smoke over the region and worsening air quality in parts of Whatcom County, and residents are being told to pay attention to conditions before they play outside.

The poor air quality prompted the Northwest Clean Air Agency on Monday, July 6, to issue a smoke advisory for Whatcom and Skagit counties.

“The bulk of the air quality problem we’re seeing is coming from the B.C. fires,” said Katie Skipper, spokeswoman for the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

Firefighters also were battling a number of small wildfires across Whatcom County that were contributing to the hazy air.

As of 4 p.m. Monday, air quality at the monitoring station in Maple Falls was unhealthy for sensitive groups, which includes young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with asthma.

In Bellingham and near Lynden (the Custer-Loomis station), the air quality then was moderate, according to monitoring data from Northwest Clean Air Agency.

Air quality has been fluctuating between very unhealthy and moderate since Sunday in Lynden, Bellingham and Mount Vernon, according to Skipper.

“This is really unusual for us,” she said. “We don’t see this, we have great air here in most parts of our jurisdiction most of the time.”

Monitoring data throughout Monday showed that the smoke was dispersing, but the Northwest Clean Air Agency said that forecasters expected air quality to fluctuate and remain poor overall for the next couple of days.

“There’s so much smoke in the air, what we’re hoping for air quality locally is a change in wind direction and we’re not going to see that until Thursday or Friday,” Skipper said Monday morning.

What little rain there is in the forecast isn’t expected to make much of a difference.

Meanwhile, thunderstorms forecasted for the Cascades in Whatcom County in the coming days could cause additional problems if they bring lightning strikes.

“With everything being as dry as it is, it could mean more fire,” Skipper said.

She’s advising people to monitor the Washington state Department of Ecology’s air quality map and to follow the activity and health guidelines.

When air quality is listed as being unhealthy: “Everyone should limit time outdoors. Everyone should avoid exercising outdoors, including sports teams,” Skipper said.

A rating of moderate or unhealthy for sensitive groups means people with asthma or young children, for example, should tone down exercise outdoors — walking instead of running, for example — or limit their time outside.

If it once again becomes very unhealthy, that means everyone should stay indoors.

People who feel unwell should talk to their doctors and close all doors and windows in their house, if they can stand the heat, or leave Whatcom County and head south to the Seattle area to find better air.

If people must be outdoors, they should know that paper masks don’t provide much protection, said Dr. Maryanne Scott, vice president for PeaceHealth Medical Group in the Northwest.

That’s because such masks don’t help once they get damp, which is usually within 20 minutes. And the masks can’t screen out the small particles that are now in the air, according to Scott, whose practice specialty has been pediatric asthma and allergy.

The bad air quality is expected to be a concern for the coming days.

“It’s just following the guidance, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Skipper said. “I have asthma, I have a young child at home, I have a house that doesn’t have air conditioning. I’m watching this stuff, too, and trying to protect myself and my family and doing the things this (air quality advisory) table is telling me to do.”

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

Track air quality

Find air quality for Whatcom County by going online to https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/enviwa/.

The activity and health guidelines under the Washington Air Quality Advisory are at the Northwest Clean Air Agency website at nwcleanair.org. Find it by selecting “Air Quality” on the left.