How Air in the Pacific Northwest Became Dirtier Than Beijing

SPOKANE, Wash.—On a recent morning in this city bred on the great outdoors, the halls of Mt. Spokane High School were filled with some 600 football players throwing spirals, cross-country runners doing laps, and marching band members twirling batons. The air outside was too smoky to breathe. The Pacific Northwest, sandwiched between Canada’s smoldering British Columbia to the north and six fire-wracked Western U.S. states, is feeling the side effects of one of the worst fire seasons on record. For much of the past several weeks, clouds of choking smog have upended daily life and posed a health hazard for millions here. “It was like being at a campfire wherever you went,” said Paul Kautzman, Mt. Spokane’s athletic director, after a particularly noxious day. Flights have been delayed because of visibility problems, the Seattle Seahawks moved practice to an indoor facility, and people are showing up at hospitals and medical clinics with complaints of wheezing, shortness of breath and other ailments. Long-planned surgeries have been canceled because patients are too ill from the smoke. In Spokane last week, a thick, gray fog draped the sky, obscuring the view of Mt. Spokane and the fir trees that dot the skyline here. A YMCA camp had to shuttle 60 children from a park to its nearest indoor facility, a former Gold’s Gym, where they arrived wearing protective masks. This region has dealt with smoke pollution before, but this year has been significantly worse, residents and experts say. Aug. 20 was the worst day so far for Spokane, population 215,000. Its air was dirtier than that of any major city—outpacing typically smog-addled places like Beijing and Lahore, Pakistan, according to a global pollution survey by IQAir Group, a Swiss-based manufacturer of air-pollution equipment that has a data collection unit. Among 80 cities with populations of more than 300,000, Vancouver, British Columbia, had the worst air quality in the world that day, followed by Seattle, IQAir said. Under the Air Quality Index, a standard followed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 101 to 150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, 151 to 200 is unhealthy for everyone, and over 200 very unhealthy. Spokane reached a high of 226 last week. Vancouver hit 165. Eric Lewis, chief executive of Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula north of Seattle, said he has experienced a sore throat, raspy voice and difficulty breathing—even though he suffers from no respiratory illness and has forsaken his daily walks for more than two weeks. “It’s like suddenly becoming a smoker,” he said. Rain over the Spokane area cleared out the skies Sunday and Monday, but smoky conditions were expected to return later this week there and in other parts of the Pacific Northwest that got a reprieve. Experts say it is unclear when the smoke will lift for good. An unusually stubborn ridge of high pressure has blocked most of the cleansing onshore winds from the Pacific, said Ranil Dhammapala, an atmospheric scientist at the Washington State Department of Ecology. High-pressure systems and wildfires are frequent occurrences this time of year in the region, but the duration and extent of the pollution is unusual, said Mr. Dhammapala.

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