Wildfire smoke reaches the East Coast
ARLINGTON, Va. – Intense smoke from historic wildfires that is filling the lungs of millions of Westerners is clouding skies across the nation.
AccuWeather meteorologist Matt Benz said you can draw a line from California through St. Louis and on to Norfolk, Virginia – pretty much everyplace north of that line is looking at smoke-tainted skies.
Areas south of that line see less smoke because of air coming up from the Gulf.
“Amazingly, that wildfire smoke has traveled thousands of miles and finally has reached the East,” Benz told USA TODAY. “It looks like clouds, but it is smoke. And we are stuck with this until the weather pattern changes.”
A weak cold front expected to sweep through much of the East in coming days probably won’t be enough to clear the air, Benz warned.
The upside is that the smoke is so high in the Eastern sky that residents aren’t breathing it. That’s not the case along the fiery West Coast, where the fires have killed at least 36 people and burned through an area larger than the state of Connecticut.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom compared breathing the air to smoking 20 packs of cigarettes. The 7 million residents of Central Valley, a 450-mile-long swath of the state’s interior, were warned to stay indoors to reduce exposure to particulate matter emissions.
“No matter which way the wind is blowing, the valley is getting smoke,” said Jonathan Klassen, director of air quality science at San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. “The valley is surrounded by fire, so no matter what happens, we will get smoke.”
In Oregon, at least 10% of emergency room visits are for asthma-like symptoms, said Gabriela Goldfarb, section manager of environmental public health at the Oregon Health Authority.
Oregon ranks air quality as good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous.
Smoke levels fluctuate between unhealthy and hazardous for Oregon and southwest Washington. When smoke levels are hazardous, everyone needs to protect themselves. Goldfarb urged people to stop working outdoors when air quality is unhealthy or worse.
The smoke from California’s fires has reached Arizona, where Tucson internist Matthew Heinz sees patients complaining of breathing and other problems.
“Even at this distance, it can aggravate anyone who has underlying pulmonary conditions, asthma, those kind of conditions,” Heinz said.
Vision can also be a problem. Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air suspended all flights to and from airports in Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington.
Crews in Southern California struggled to keep the Bobcat Fire from reaching the historic Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena.
The observatory played a pivotal role in early 20th-century confirmation that galaxies exist outside the Milky Way and that the universe is expanding. In addition to its famed 100-inch telescope, the peak has other historic telescopes, as well as modern astronomy instruments in use.
The observatory said Monday that all personnel had been evacuated.
President Donald Trump repeated his claim this week that Democratic leaders in California deserve blame for the fires, having failed to clear leaves and dead trees from forest floors. Wally Covington, professor of forestry at Northern Arizona University, agreed that forests have become overgrown and need to be thinned, but “not with a lawn rake.”
Some of the policies that led to overgrown forests, such as aggressive fire suppression, were implemented more than 100 years ago, so blaming California’s current leaders doesn’t make sense, Covington said.
He noted that two-thirds of the burned acreage is on federal lands and not within the purview of state officials. Covington said people living in areas burning are paying the price because policymakers would not address climate change and the effects of fire suppression on forests 30 or 40 years ago.
“Amongst fire scientists like myself, we’ve been convinced that this train wreck was going to happen for years and years,” he said. “I was hopeful back in the ’90s and ’80s that maybe we would reverse climate change effects. Now I’m kind of pessimistic.”
Contributing: Rebecca Plevin, Palm Springs Desert Sun; Tracy Loew and Connor Radnovich, Salem Statesman Journal; Joe Jacquez, Sheyanne N. Romero and James Ward, Visalia Times-Delta; and Damon Arthur, Redding Record Searchlight
Flames burned through Fishermen’s Bend Recreation Site east of Salem, Ore.