PNW wildfires
PNW wildfires
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Northwestern cities rank for dirtiest air

Air pollution from wildfires in Washington & Oregon break world air quality records. See the air quality impact.

Wildfires burning across Washington, Oregon, and California

Pictured: Wildfires burning across Washington, Oregon, and California, have resulted in far-reaching PM2.5 pollution from across the US to Canada, heat-mapped here in US AQI colors.

Washington Wildfires

Several wildfires erupted through the state of Washington on Monday, September 8. Fanned by 50 mile-per-hour winds and fueled by an abundance of dry timber, the fires burned through more than 580,000 acres, in less than 72 hours.1 That number is significant. Before this, 2015 was the state's most destructive wildfire season, with 500,000 burned acres. 2020 bested this record in three days.  

Wind fans air pollution from wildfires

Pictured: Wind fans air pollution from wildfires across the state of Washington (Wednesday, September 9, 12pm PST).

Of the 37 active fires burning in Washington on Tuesday, September 9, the two largest are the 174,000-acre Pearl Hill Fire, in Douglas County, and the 163,000-acre Cold Springs Fire near Omak. Both are at zero percent containment.

Three fires currently burning in Whitman County have burned 32 square miles, or more than 20,000 acres, including:3

  • The Babbs Fire: 17,781 scorched acres, 0 percent contained
  • The Manning Fire: 3,063 scorched acres, 25 percent contained
  • The Colfax Fire: 5 scorched acres, fully contained

The small town of Malden, Washington, which belongs to Whitman County, was almost completely leveled on Tuesday, with roughly 80 percent of its structures destroyed. Pine city has also suffered significant damage. The most recent report estimates that these three fires have burned 91 homes, 8 commercial properties and 90 other structures. 

Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz described the situation as, “one of the worst nightmares we can imagine”.

More than 1,500 firefighters are on the frontlines, fighting wildfires in every corner of the state. The National Guard has additionally been called on to assist, though resources are expected to be spread thin with devastating wildfires burning in California, Oregon and Colorado. 

No deaths or injuries have been reported as of Wednesday, September 10. 

Impact on Air Quality

Easterly winds have carried plumes of smoke from wildfires toward the Puget Sound area where most of the state’s population resides. More than 5 million residents are on their third day of air pollution levels classified as “unhealthy” for the general public.  

On September 8th at noon, Seattle topped the IQAir major city ranking for worst air pollution globally, with an air quality index of 193. Seattle largely held its position in the top ten for 48 hours, continually beating notorious New Delhi air quality and Beijing air quality for highest overall AQI.**

Washington wildfires burning in the western and northernmost part of the state have also affected air pollution levels in Canada, with some smoke carried more than 200 miles from the source. On Tuesday September 8, air quality levels in Richmond, Canada and Vancouver, Canada hit highs of AQI 150+, “unhealthy.”

IQAir’s air quality map

IQAir’s air quality map provides a visual tool for locating active fires and understanding the effect wind has on transporting toxic air pollutants across the state, country and continent. Active fire data is integrated from NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) and is updated every three hours, while air quality data is reported from governmental and community contributed air quality monitors, modelized in real-time, updated hourly. 

Washington wildfire smoke currently presents the greatest risks to:

  • Seattle air quality:  Reached a high daily average of AQI 155 on Monday, September 7, more than 2.5 times the WHO daily target for PM2.5 exposure. Seattle’s air quality index reached 
  • Olympia air quality: Reached a high daily average of AQI 123 on Tuesday, September 8. Hourly measurements peaked at AQI 152 at 11pm that day. 
  • Tacoma air quality: Reached a high daily average of AQI 152 on Tuesday, September 8. Hourly measurements peaked from 9pm to 11pm that day, with an AQI 164.
  • Vancouver, Canada air quality: Reached a high hourly average of AQI 152 on Tuesday, September 8, at 2pm PST.

Wildfires release a range of air toxins including particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Among these, fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, is most often present at the riskiest levels to health. 

PM2.5 is airborne matter measuring 2.5 micrograms or smaller, such as near microscopic particles of dust, soot and ash. It is categorized by its size, rather than its chemical composition because PM2.5 is so small, it can penetrate deep into the lungs, and even into the circulatory system, causing far reaching health effects. Exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to adverse health effects including chest pain, arrhythmias, bronchitis, heart and lung disease, cancer and early death. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses an air quality index (AQI) to translate pollutant concentrations to a relatable scale for risk to health. The scale ranges from 0 to 500, where 0 to 50 is considered “good,” 51 and 100 is “moderate,” 101 to 150 is “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” 151 to 200 is “unhealthy,” 201 to 300 is “very unhealthy,” and 301 to 500 is considered “hazardous.”

Hourly air quality index levels for Seattle
Pictured: Hourly air quality index levels for Seattle, from Tuesday, September 8 to Wednesday, September 9.

Reduce your air pollution exposure in Washington state by following the wildfire protocol advised below:

  • Stay current with real-time and forecast air quality conditions: air pollution is fast-changing and dynamic, particularly when originating from active wildfires. It’s important to stay informed of the changing risks in the air to guide exposure-reducing actions. 
  • Take action when AQI levels exceed 100: close windows and doors and seal door gaps and window cracks. Set air conditioning (HVAC) systems with fresh air intake to their recirculate mode. Use air purifiers or high-efficiency HVAC filters to remove fine particles from the air. Run the air cleaning systems as often as possible, on the highest fan speed.    
  • Avoid strenuous outdoor activity: reduce the amount of smoke you inhale by slowing down activity and controlling the rate of inhalation (e.g. walk, don't run). Wear an N95 pollution mask if possible when outdoor air exceeds AQI 150.                
  • Evacuate when necessary: when air quality levels become “very unhealthy” or "hazardous" and are expected to remain unhealthy for several hours, evacuate if possible. Use the air quality forecast provided on IQAir’s city and station pages to guide evacuation decisions.

Oregon Wildfires

Dozens of fires are ravaging Oregon’s forested valleys and coastlines, in what may become the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire season yet.4 More than 3,000 firefighters are working the frontlines of Oregon’s 48 blazes which have burned through more than 500 square miles, or more than 320,000 acres. 

High winds have whipped flames across thousands of acres, making firefighting difficult. Governor Kate Brown tweeted on Wednesday, “Our number-one priority right now is saving lives.”

Air quality levels from “unhealthy” to “hazardous”

Pictured: Air quality levels from “unhealthy” to “hazardous” stretch across the Oregon coastline (Thursday, September 10, 7am PST).

The town of Detroit in the Santiam Valley, Blue River and Vida in coastal Lane County, and Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon, have been substantially destroyed, according to Gov. Brown.

Firefighters are hoping changes in the wind on Thursday will allow for containment. The past two days have had strong 50 mile-per-hour easterly winds blowing west. Normally, however, wind blows in from the Pacific Ocean at gentler speeds. 

Impact on Air Quality

The quantity and close proximity of Oregon’s wildfires have had dramatic effects on the air quality of Oregon’s largest coastal cities. Images of red skies and less than 10-feet of visibility have been shared widely across the internet. 

Eugene notably, a city of 170,000, is on its third day of air quality reading “very unhealthy” or worse. Tuesday and Wednesday averaged “hazardous” air quality readings, with AQIs of 384 and 331 respectively. 

Hourly air quality index (AQI) data for Eugene, Oregon

Pictured: Hourly air quality index (AQI) data for Eugene, Oregon from Tuesday, September 8 to Thursday morning, September 10.

Until wind direction changes and the fires are contained, dangerous levels of air pollution are expected throughout the region. 

Washington wildfire smoke currently presents the greatest risks to:

  • Eugene air quality: Reached a high daily average of AQI 384 “hazardous” on Tuesday, September 8, more than 13 times the WHO daily target for PM2.5 exposure. Hazardous air quality was sustained on Wednesday September 9, with a daily average AQI of 331.
  • Salem air quality: Reached a high daily average of AQI 157 on Monday, September 7. Hourly AQI measurements above 160 were sustained for 14 hours on Tuesday, September 8 before dropping to “moderate” levels in the evening. 
  • Portland air quality: Reached a high daily average of AQI 101 on Monday, September 7. As of Wednesday, September 9, air quality levels have not exceeded the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” AQI category. 

Follow live air quality advisories across the state for pertinent health information. When air quality levels reach “very unhealthy” or worse, consider evacuating to reduce your health risk. Sensitive individuals such as children under 18, adults over 65, and those with heart and lung disease are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects from air pollution. 

**The IQAir major city ranking features 100 major cities with a population of more than 300,000 people, which represent a wide range of countries to allow global contrast. The ranking is updated hourly and is based on a comparative level of air quality across major cities at any given hour. To compare cities using their annual mean air quality levels, visit IQAir’s World’s Most Polluted Cities list

Article Resources

[1]  Q13 Fox. (2020, September 9). Northw Washington wildfires: 1,500 firefighters on front lines of 'one of the worst nightmares we can imagine'. 

[2] Robinson E. (2020, September 8). Three fires burning a collective 32 square miles in Whitman County. KXLY. 

[3] Li D, et al. (2020, September 8). Fires cover more than 330,000 acres in 24 hours, Washington governor says. NBC News. 

[4]  Aaro D. (2020, September 10). Oregon on 'high alert' as wildfires destroy hundreds of homes; governor issues dire warning. Fox News. 

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