Our future, up in flames?
For people hoping the smoky summers are an anomaly, Harvey offers an uncomfortable truth: they’re probably here to stay.
Wildfires have existed long before human development put us in their path, and they will continue to exist because the ingredients for them to occur will be here well into the future; plus, they’re a crucial part of many ecosystems, Harvey says.
He wants people to understand that, while fires can be a bad thing because of the danger they pose to us, fires are often a perfectly normal thing for the environment.
“We forget how much fire has played a fundamental role in sustaining and maintaining the natural beauty we know and love in this region,” Harvey says.
In the eastern part of the state, prescribed burns — where agencies like the Department of Natural Resources purposefully set controllable fires to fire-prone areas — could help clear undergrowth and saplings from overgrown forests and remove kindling that larger, uncontrollable fires could thrive on. Such burns have already begun.
In the western region, where prescribed burns aren’t beneficial, it’s important that we follow burn restrictions, do everything possible to prevent accidentally starting a fire and do our best to adapt to our changing region.
“We need to find ways for us as a society to best adapt and live with wildfire, accept the reality that it is a fundamental part of our region and mitigate the risk whenever and wherever we can,” Harvey says.
I recently visited an exhibit at Pacific Science Center called “Smoke Signals,” where a local artist felled burnt trees from Eastern Washington and shipped them into the city, placing them strategically around Seattle Center.
One of the trees stands by Pac Sci’s arches; at the right angle, you can see the Space Needle looming behind the blackened, stubby remains of the tree’s branches.
It’s a beautiful warning.
Tips for weathering the smoke
Since we're likely going to get smoky skies again this year, here are some tips from the experts for navigating fire season.
Keep an eye on smoke levels
Many websites (and even map apps) offer AQI monitoring so you can check how clean the air is in your area. If the AQI is between 101 and 150, that means the outdoor air is unhealthy to breathe for people in sensitive groups, like those with medical conditions. If the AQI is above 151, the air is unhealthy for everyone regardless of individual health.
Don’t exercise outside
Yes, we Pacific Northwesterners love going outside, especially in the summer. But if you want to do any strenuous activities, it’s best to stick to the gym on smoky days. “Your first choice should be modifying activities. Going outside for a run with your N95 mask isn’t the thing you should do,” Sack says. (She’s seen people bike around the city wearing them, which she doesn’t recommend.)
Keep indoor air clean
If it’s smoky outside, keep your doors and windows shut. If it gets warm inside, use a fan, or if you have AC, set it to recirculate. With the lack of air-conditioned homes in this area, it can be difficult to stay indoors when your house or apartment feels like a sauna, but do your best to find alternate ways of cooling off.
If you must be outside, wear a mask
And not just any mask, but one that includes a filter that can actually keep particulates from entering your airways. The best option is what’s typically called an N95 mask. The Centers for Disease Control has a list of approved N95 masks.
Listen to your body
Sack wants to emphasize this, especially for people who may be at higher risk of developing symptoms from smoke exposure. If you’re outside and the smoke is bothering you, go inside. If you try to go for a run and your breathing feels different, head back home.
Use your car’s AC
Staying indoors is best, but if you must drive, use the AC exclusively because it will filter out particulates, whereas open windows (obviously) won’t.
Don’t be a fire-starter
Obey burn bans. With campfires and other outdoor fires, keep flammable items away from the flames and clear the area around the fire pit. Never leave a fire, even one in a small camp stove, unattended; keep water nearby at all times. When you put a fire out, do so thoroughly and with water to prevent any embers from reigniting. And pay attention to the wind: Windy weather can make an accidental fire spread and quickly grow out of control.