Whatcom View: Clean Air Agency monitors wildfire smoke causes, air quality in Whatcom and Skagit counties

When the smoke rolled in Sunday, July 5, it seems like we at the Northwest Clean Air Agency had just been celebrating our appearance on the American Lung Association’s list of places with the cleanest air in the nation.

And like a lot of other people, we had been talking about how hot and dry it was so early in the summer. Like many of you, we were saddened to see our fears coming true as the number and size of wildfires around us continued to grow. We were even more concerned as the winds shifted and a brown haze of smoke, primarily from Canadian wildfires, settled over Whatcom and Skagit counties.

Our air quality monitors, which usually reside at the low end of the green zone, representing the best air quality, rose rapidly and indicated the worst regional air quality we have had in memory. The air quality was bad, and there was no pollution source we could work with and no violation we could write to address the problem.

What we had was information. We decided the best thing we could do was communicate what we knew, when we knew it, so people could take steps to protect themselves, and could help us to get the word out.

As the event began to unfold Sunday night, we saw that people were turning to social media, so we did too, for our initial messages. We’ve been posting about this event to our agency Facebook regularly since.

On Monday we shared information through newspaper, radio and television interviews, and on our website. Later that day, as it became clear that the situation would persist, we released an air quality advisory.

We know that we reached a lot of people. Our first Facebook post about degraded air quality got more than 19,000 views, and people were sharing the information we provided. Our website was visited more than 3,000 times on July 5 and July 6, when normally we might see 100 site visits a day.

We hope the information we provided helped you through this event. As we know, however, wildfire season isn’t over yet. Because air quality is so consistently good in our region, you may not know where to go for information, what the information means, and what to do about it when air quality appears poor.

So here’s some more information that may help in the coming months.

Get information

You can find current and historical air quality on our website. We created a new page of just the monitors that are in areas of our jurisdiction affected by wildfires and posted the link on our home page, air quality monitoring page, and the news page: www.nwcleanair.org/news/2015-SmokeCurrentAQ.html. (Look for “NEW: Current air quality – areas affected by wildfire smoke.”)

We will also continue to post frequent updates about air quality related to wildfire smoke on our Facebook page: facebook.com/nwcleanair.

And we will continue posting periodic advisories and updates to our website, nwcleanair.org, and distributing the information to media.

On July 1, coincidentally, we began a project to redesign our agency website, so the information you’re looking for – whether it’s wildfire smoke or other air quality information – will be easier to find and understand.

Monitors, gauges

The Northwest Clean Air Agency has seven ambient air quality monitoring locations (meaning locations where we measure air quality in our surroundings) in Island, Skagit, and Whatcom counties: Downtown Anacortes, March Point, Bellingham, Columbia Valley, Lynden, Mount Vernon and Oak Harbor.

Different monitors measure different pollutants depending on where they are and the likely pollution sources nearby.

When it’s smoky, we’re watching the readings for fine particle pollution. The term fine particles, or particulate matter 2.5, refers to tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two and one half microns or less in width. Like inches, meters and miles, a micron is a unit of measurement for distance. There are about 25,000 microns in an inch. The widths of the larger particles in the particulate matter 2.5 size range would be about thirty times smaller than that of a human hair. The smaller particles are so small that several thousand of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.

Particles in the particulate matter 2.5 size range can be inhaled deeply into the lungs. Particle pollution is linked to a number of health problems, including coughing, wheezing, reduced lung function, asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. It also is linked to early death.

Particulate matter 2.5 is such a concern that we measure it at all seven of our monitoring locations. And even though we are planning an expansion of our monitoring network to improve our coverage of air quality, we can’t have monitors everywhere. They are expensive pieces of equipment. So it can be frustrating to people who don’t live near a monitor when the wind is blowing wildfire smoke over the area.

The best thing to do is to look at the monitor nearest to your location. For wildfire impacts you can also check the BlueSky smoke model at http://firesmoke.ca/forecasts/BSC00WC04/current/.

Air quality monitors measure particulate concentrations in micrograms per cubic meter, which is translated to a color-coded air quality category. The category, which is represented in a gauge graphic, is based on a calculation of concentrations over time, but the category is not reporting the actual concentration of particles.

The state health guidelines for what action to take based on the different air quality categories are here: https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/enviwa/App_AQI/AQI.en-US.pdf.

We’ve learned a lot about what you’d like from us during an event like this. We’re taking that knowledge and working on short and longer term projects to make our information even more accessible than before. As always, it’s our privilege to be your local clean air agency.


Mark Buford is deputy director of the Northwest Clean Air Agency, which works to preserve, protect and enhance air quality in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties.