“It was obviously beautiful, but there was this unnerving feeling,” she says. “It almost feels like what I would imagine a war zone to feel like. Just this sense of dread and inescapable uncomfortableness.”
With wildfires raging across the Pacific Northwest, fire and smoke have hit Washington state hard. “This smoke event marks the most days our monitoring sites have recorded hazardous air quality going back to 2000, and the majority of the state has experienced three or four days in a row of very unhealthy to hazardous air quality,” said Washington State Department of Ecology’s Beth Friedman Tuesday.
But White Salmon, just south of the Yakama Indian Reservation and across the Columbia River from Hood River, Oregon, was in a uniquely bad position: Available sensor data show the Klickitat County town may have experienced the most hazardous air quality in the world over the weekend. Based on the Washington Department of Ecology’s White Salmon monitor, over the three days from Sept. 11 to 13, the Columbia River Gorge reached an average of 687 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 — an unprecedented concentration of those particulates deemed most concerning for respiratory health.
The corresponding AQI for that is 623, Friedman says. “This is beyond Hazardous [classification], based on the national Air Quality Index score for air pollution.”
To put things in perspective, the worst PM2.5 levels Seattle saw this week were 264 micrograms per cubic meter, or an AQI of about 220.
On Sunday, it sunk in for White Salmon Mayor Marla Keethler that something was seriously wrong. The smoke that began rolling in Thursday was stifling and claustrophobic, and even more noticeable and alarming to her than the smoke from 2017’s Eagle Creek Fire. With the knowledge her town may have been the most polluted place on the planet, she decided to put out an emergency proclamation curtailing people’s outdoor activities, despite the impacts to people who work in agriculture and to the tourism-driven economy of her 2,200-person community, already restricted by the pandemic.
“I think my first reaction was maybe this [emergency proclamation] is something I should have declared Friday, when we started seeing these numbers skyrocket,” Keethler said by phone Wednesday.
Ashley Nelson has felt those impacts. Nelson, who is part of an artist co-op in nearby Hood River, has seen sales drop “to basically zero” since the smoke settled into the Gorge. She also has a pear orchard that she hasn’t been able to harvest. “It's already been a tough year there without the smoke,” she says.
Keethler says wildfire planning has been a safety priority in White Salmon for years because of the threat of more fires and longer fire seasons in Washington, “but smoke has never been something singularly that we have flagged or thought we needed to address as being … its own emergency or extreme situation.”
“There's not a fire knocking our doors, but the air should be a reminder that we're still at great risk of, if this stays, who knows what the health effects are of being in a hazardous area for this long?” Keethler says.
Some White Salmon residents report using air purifiers they purchased during the Eagle Creek fires, but many are struggling to find ways to keep indoor air clean. Facebook groups are full of neighbors trading resources and DIY purifier hacks (“boiling water with baking soda and herbs,” for one), with dozens of posts showing off their best fan-and-filter efforts. A number of residents say they’ve looked at their filters after a day or two of use, only to see the filter unsettlingly darkened by smoke.
Kent Lay works in customer service at the White Salmon Ace Hardware store. The store has sold out of the air filters required to clean smoky air, which people started buying around Friday to put behind fans. “The Dalles, Portland, Vancouver — everybody is seeing a mad rush to buy box fans and filters,” Lay says. More people have come in to buy weather stripping for doors and seals for windows, which is especially helpful for less insulated older homes. “It's just not something that we commonly live with for this lengthy period of time,” he says.
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“I’ve worked outside for an hour, hour and a half when it wasn't that bad,” Lay says. “But over time, I can tell that I am starting to cough a little more. … I'm 62. It doesn't seem to bother me as badly as it does [others]. But long-term effects? Now that remains to be seen.”
As the smoke rolled in, people’s daily routines changed in unnerving ways.
Heidi Venture, who has family in White Salmon, gets up every morning and checks the air quality — first asking Siri, then checking open source AQI program PurpleAir.com, then WebSky. “Two of my sons live in White Salmon,” she says “One has gotten very sick from the smoke — he's an essential worker in IT support, and was out in the smoke at its worst. Now he's home in bed.”
The first night, the smoke woke Venture up in Hood River, so she took her air conditioners out of the windows. Now every time she opens her door, she says, she feels like she’s breathing in dead trees, dead animals, dead flowers.
“It made me feel so hopeless and sad. I cried every day at first. I coped by crying, and by calling friends to check on them,” Venture says. With the isolation of COVID-19 lockdown and fear for the future swirling together, “I got in a bit of a hole of sadness,” she says. “To see so many large fires burning the places I love was terrifying, disheartening. ... I really don't know how to describe it. It felt like the apocalypse was beginning right here.”
Cassie Wilson evacuated from the chaos and panic of fires near her home in Boring, Oregon. She went to her grandparents’ home in White Salmon on Sept. 9, only to find herself at the center of extreme smoke. “For once, the Gorge was the safe place without fires, and we knew there were no fires around them, so we went there to get away,” she says. Her grandparents covered their air conditioning unit with a blanket to help filter pollution, and had a box fan with a filter going — but they accidentally left windows open upstairs for a bit. “My grandparents are both asthmatic and have a pulse oximeter and both of them read in the low 90s the morning after the smoke arrived,” says Wilson, who returned to Oregon on Wednesday.
Sasha Bentley says it’s scary to see AQI numbers go off the charts and learn you live in the place with the worst air quality. “I share a small piece of land with deer and turkeys and rabbits and hummingbirds and so many other animals that can't escape the smoke like I can,” she says.
She has a 7-month-old baby and only one air filter, which means they’re all staying in her child’s room right now. “She crawled for the first time on our mattress in front of her crib,” Bentley says.
Voice actor and audiobook narrator Mikael Naramore says that despite running a studio HVAC system with smoke-standard air filters around the clock, he’s still unable to work.
“I was doing pretty well during the pandemic, even at its worst. I had more work than ever — voice actors are the only folks in the industry still getting regular work — and could still spend plenty of time outside,” he says. “Now my family and I are stuck indoors, struggling to breathe, with headaches and low energy. Add in the stress from trying to do distance learning with two young kids and we’ve kind of hit our wall.”
“I think people were already tired of so many limitations and changes to their daily lives with the pandemic,” says Julie Fox, air quality epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health. “For some, it seems like being months into the pandemic has made it easier for them to adapt so quickly. In others I see frustration, or even desperation, and maybe that leads to not following health recommendations.”
The health field
The health impacts of wildfire smoke are in many ways still being established, medical experts say. “While it’s complicated, research shows more people experience worse health outcomes as the air quality gets into those higher categories,” Fox says.
In the short-term, local medical professionals are seeing respiratory problems compounding those of the pandemic. “The smoke presents an extra challenge as we rule out COVID because of the overlapping health conditions,” says Debi Budnick, community health and outreach coordinator at Skyline Health in White Salmon.
Erinn Quinn, director of public health with Klickitat County Public Health, said Wednesday that the county had seen one case of COVID in the past six days, with a decrease over the past two weeks.
“We are hearing from our patients they are suffering from a general ‘smoke depression,’ ” Budnick says. “It was already hard to continue to social distance and limit group activities during this time of COVID, but we still had the outdoors to go enjoy.”
Fewer patients have come into the facility, but more reported smoke-related headaches, coughs, asthma exacerbations and more difficulty breathing than usual. There was a significant increase in calls to the COVID Nurse Hotline with people concerned about sore throats and respiratory problems.
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More than that, there’s been an uptick in the number of respiratory-related emergency room visits, which has staff especially concerned about the homeless population. And Skyline staff worries that people are protecting themselves from smoke with cloth COVID masks, which aren’t as effective as the KN95 masks they reserve for vulnerable patients.
Budnick says the county emergency operations center planned to send 500 masks to Skyline, but because of COVID restrictions, residents couldn’t get to the hospital to pick them up. “To complicate things further, since it was a Saturday, most public service offices were closed,” she says. The local police department stepped in to help distribute 200 masks to people in low-income areas, clinics, farms and food banks. “We could have given out thousands of these honestly, but we only received an initial amount of 500, which went very quickly,” she says.
Keethler says this smoky period feels like a surreal, sad reckoning for dealing with climate change — a “sobering” reality to see playing out at home instead of somewhere on the other side of the world.
“But you think about all the communities across Oregon and California,” she says. “This smoke that we're seeing and experiencing is this constant reminder of how many homes and communities have been lost. It's tough, because we feel fortunate that we're only having to deal with the smoke issue.”
Keethler hopes to prepare for future smoke and fire in the town’s 2021 budget. “We need clean-air shelters. We're a community with a lot of older homes and those residents have probably felt this worse than those in newer homes with better ventilation,” Keethler says. If a wildfire broke out nearby, Keethler says, there wouldn't be many evacuation routes out of town.
White Salmon City Councilor David Lindley says the town will pick back up on initiatives already in motion, like working with the state Department of Natural Resources to thin and manage vegetation at the border of urban areas and wild ones; reviewing evacuation routes; researching equipment that could be installed along the bluff south of town to slow or stop a fire; and discussing ways to improve community and individual emergency preparedness.
Hood River’s Venture says that though people in the area deal with smoke almost every year, this time is different. “It’s worsening as time passes,” she says. “My firefighter friends have told me that everything is going to burn, unless something changes.”