Poor air qual­ity in fo­cus as heat, wind build in US west


Mas­sive wild­fires in the western U.S. have led to poor air qual­ity across the re­gion, caus­ing res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems for peo­ple far from the fire lines as well as ground­ing fire­fight­ing air­craft.

“It’s been a night­mare to breathe,” said Okanogan County Sher­iff Frank Rogers in the north­west­ern U.S. state of Washington.

Con­di­tions were start­ing to im­prove Tues­day and Rogers said he could see the sun for the first time in a week.

That sun brought more heat to Washington, where fire­fight­ers kept a wary eye on ris­ing tem­per­a­tures and winds that threat­ened to ex­pand what’s al­ready the largest wild­fire on record in the state.

Sim­i­lar con­cerns ex­isted in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where tem­per­a­tures of up to 106 de­grees were forecast for in­te­rior val­leys and deserts — con­di­tions that could ac­cel­er­ate some of the 16 fires that are still burn­ing in the state but pos­ing lit­tle se­ri­ous risk of ma­jor de­struc­tion.

The U.S. is in the mid­dle of a se­vere fire sea­son with some 30,000 square kilo­me­ters ( 11,600 square miles) scorched so far. It’s only the sixth-worst go­ing back to 1960, but it’s the most acreage burned by this date in a decade.

So many fires are burn­ing in Washington state that man­agers are sum­mon­ing help from abroad and 200 U.S. troops from a base in Ta­coma in the first such use of ac­tive-duty sol­diers in nine years.

Fire­fight­ers were grate­ful that 71 re­in­force­ments had ar­rived from Aus­tralia and New Zealand to help lead ef­forts to con­tain the Okanogan fires along the bor­der of Canada.

“`The Aussies are com­ing!” said Rick Isaac­son, a spokesman for the fire­fight­ing ef­fort.

The fires, which have claimed the lives of three fire­fight­ers, grew by 5.2 square kilo­me­ters (2.6 square miles) on Mon­day night and have now burned 1,043 square kilo­me­ters (403 square miles). A to­tal of 1,345 peo­ple were bat­tling the flames.

The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice is­sued a red-flag warn­ing for the area, say­ing tem­per­a­tures were ex­pected to climb into the 90s as hu­mid­ity dropped and winds gusted to 32 kph (20 mph). Thun­der­storms were pos­si­ble later in the week.

“Hot, dry and un­sta­ble con­di­tions will cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment con­ducive to in­creased growth on ex­ist­ing wild­fires,” the Weather Ser­vice said.

Fires also were burn­ing in Mon­tana and Idaho, where an at­mo­spheric in­ver­sion was hold­ing heavy smoke over western Mon- tana, rob­bing wild­fires of oxy­gen and pre­vent­ing the sun from heat­ing ground fu­els.

The con­di­tions dirt­ied the skies but also helped crews make progress on blazes near Noxon, Mon­tana, and Clark Fork in north­ern Idaho.

Res­i­dents near Es­sex, Mon­tana, re­mained un­der an evac­u­a­tion ad­vi­sory as a wild­fire burned on the south­ern edge of Glacier Na­tional Park.

In Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, nearly 200 fire­fight­ers were treated for al­ler­gic re­ac­tions to poi­son oak while bat­tling a 13-squarek­ilo­me­ter ( 5- square- mile) blaze on the coast.

The dreaded plant is so ubiq­ui­tous in the steep wilder­ness of San Luis Obispo County that crews can’t avoid it, said Ben­nett Milloy, spokesman for the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion.

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