Naval Hospital Bremerton, Washington –
By Douglas H Stutz, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton public affairs officer –
Spectacular sunsets and sunrises the last few days in the Pacific Northwest have come at a hazy cost.
Due to raging wildfires scorching thousands of acres from British Columbia to northern California, there’s been a murky layer which has settled over the entire area, which has even closed highways and mountain passes in Washington State.
The smoky pale across much of the Puget Sound region, home to the nation’s third largest fleet concentration, pushed the air quality index way above normal into the ‘very unhealthy’ range during the second weekend of September. Seattle was listed as the top city in the world with the worst air quality peaking at 243, September 9, 2022, with Portland, Oregon right behind at 224, San Francisco with a 195 reading and Vancouver, BC, Canada at 171.
Air Quality Index is a measurement tool, much like a thermometer. The higher the reading of a variety of pollutants from carbon monoxide to particulate matter, the greater the threat to personal health.
There are also a host of potential associated health risks that mirror COVID-19 symptoms, especially with those with sensitive to respiratory and cardiovascular system ailments.
“Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles and can make anyone sick. Symptoms of breathing in smoke can include coughing, trouble breathing normally, scratchy throat, stinging eye, runny nose, irritated sinuses, wheezing, chest pain, headaches, asthma attack, tiredness, and fast heartbeat,” explained Cmdr. Carolyn Ellison, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton Director for Public Health.
According to the U.S. Air Quality Index, 0 to 50 as good, 51 to 100 as moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups 101-150; the unhealthy range from 150 to 200, very unhealthy 201 to 300; and anything over 300 is in the hazardous range.
“People need to understand that air quality is something out of our control. However, there are things they can control regarding their activities and addressing any health concerns,” said Terry Lerma, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton emergency manager. “Over the weekend, local fire and EMS agencies responded to multiple calls of ‘smoke from unknown fire’ only to arrive and realize that the surrounding air quality was what gave the citizens the concern. Not that they were wrong, just not cognizant of the temporary change in the environmental conditions.”
Outside Naval Hospital Bremerton, the air quality index September 12, 2022 dropped to 79, considered acceptable. Yet the pollution range, lingering due to dry conditions mixed with high temperatures and low precipitation, is not helping matters.
What can someone do to lessen air pollutants at home, work and play?
“People who have any respiratory issues such as COPD, or emphysema should be aware on restricting their personal activities and consider measures to try and assist with filtering the air in their homes,” Lerma said. “For homes that have air conditioning, filtered fans, or some other sort of heat pump/AC, checking and cleaning the filters will help keep fresher, cleaner air inside their homes.”
Ellison affirmed to follow such general health tips when the air is smoky as staying indoors as much as possible, avoid vigorous outdoor activities, close the windows, recirculate air conditioning, and consider an air cleaner with a filter to have one room in your home with extra clean air.
“Stay informed with real-time air quality [index] monitoring to know what the situation is in your area. Several websites provided this information readily such as Washington State Department of Ecology at https://enviwa.ecology.wa.gov/home/map
,” added Ellison.
In his capacity as a captain with South Kitsap Fire and Rescue, Lerma also strongly advocates for everyone to stay aware that the current warm weather and dry conditions can go from combustible to conflagration with just one small spark.
“Fire season is not over. The dry weather and wind are dangerous combinations and the conditions are ripe for a small vegetation fire that could easily blow up into a larger acreage fire. With all the recent construction of neighborhoods that have zero lot lines, it wouldn't take much for a vegetation fire to start a chain reaction of fire jumping from home to home in quick succession. Now also in the time with the ripe growing conditions to look at cutting back brush away from a residence, keeping the lawn mowed and trimming back branches that could allow ground vegetation to ladder up into the trees. Also note any dead trees or growths and have them cut back or cut down. They are the perfect fuels for a wildland fire,” stated Lerma.
There’s a reason why Kitsap County went into a Phase 2 burn ban over the weekend calling for no outdoor fires allowed except in free standing barbeque appliances using natural gas or propane fuel.
“There are still citizens who feel that on their own property, they can burn brush piles or have back-to-school bonfires,” noted Lerma. “The potential for the wind to catch and carry an ember, and then ignite other dry brush is too high of a risk at this time. Even with the momentary rain drizzle some areas experienced over the weekend is not enough to minimize or eliminate the fire dangers.”
Even before the unthinkable happens that a fire threatens hearth and home, Lerma also reminds everyone not to wait until the last minute for emergency planning.
“Look at what you would need to bug out with, such as important documents, ID, spare clothes, medications, pet food and meds. Too often we hear about the Level 3 evacuation order, which is go now, and how residents refuse to evacuate due to animal or looting concerns. Then they get trapped when the roads are cut off, and then start dialing 911 to come save them, putting them and first responders at greater risk,” commented Lerma.
At this time, it is hoped that the worst of the wildfire smoke impact on Western Washington air quality may be over for this summer,” said Ellison. “Please contact your healthcare provider if you are experiencing concerning symptoms related to smoke or call 911 if your symptoms are severe.”