Headaches and raspy voices as wildfire smoke chokes US West
The smoke from massive wildfires hangs like fog over large parts of the U.S. West, an irritating haze causing health concerns, forcing sports teams to change schedules and disrupting life from Seattle to tiny Seeley Lake, Montana.
Air quality has been rated unhealthy across the region because of blazes that show no signs of abating. Officials said Friday that one of the worst U.S. wildfire seasons in terms of land burned is likely to keep scorching Western states and blanketing them with smoke until later this fall.
People in small towns to the populous San Francisco Bay Area have had enough.
“Last night, I went to sleep with the windows open and woke up with a stomachache and a headache,” said Tresa Snow, who owns a hair salon in Brookings, Oregon, near a large wildfire. “I knew before I could even smell it that the fire was back. And you can hear my voice, kind of raspy. We’re all kind of like that.”
She said business has been down in the town near the California border.
“Businesses are closing because they don’t have their help,” Snow said. “People have been evacuating.”
In the run-up to the long Labor Day weekend, several high school football teams changed their season-opening games to avoid the smoke, and other athletic events have been postponed.
In Southern California, an erratic wildfire just north of Los Angeles forced the closure of Interstate 210, an essential link to routes in and out of town just as Labor Day weekend travel was starting.
Firefighters had reduced the raging flames, but the freeway was expected to be shut down all night.
The poor air quality has caused the cancellation of some performances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and the Cycle Oregon Classic Ride, a 400-mile bicycle event this month.
Smoke from wildfires in British Columbia pushed down into western Washington in August, choking the region and prompting health officials to warn the Seattle area that children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems should stay inside.
Smoke has affected the Montana town of Seeley Lake to such a degree that health officials urged people to escape the pollution weeks before an order Tuesday to evacuate part of town because of the encroaching fire.
The town’s air quality had hourly pollution readings classified as hazardous in 26 days in August, topping out the ability of the monitor to measure the pollution in many cases. It was considered hazardous Friday, too.
“There aren’t even the correct health categories to describe what they’re seeing,” air quality specialist Saran Coefield said.
Most of the smoke entering Washington state this year is coming from neighboring states and British Columbia, said Joye Redfield-Wilder of the state Department of Ecology.
“I’m smelling smoke in my office right now,” she said.
The National Interagency Fire Center said more than 25,000 firefighters and personnel are spread out across the Western U.S. fighting 56 large uncontained wildfires, 21 of them in Montana and 17 in Oregon.
Fire center spokesman Jessica Gardetto said Friday that besides one of the most destructive wildfire seasons, 2017 is turning into one of the longest, starting in the spring in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.
“Some of these firefighters have been working on fires for six months now,” she said.
The 10,600 square miles (27,500 square kilometers) that have burned rank this season as the third-worst in the last decade. The area burned is about 2,600 square miles (6,700 square kilometers) above the 10-year average.
In Northern California, a wildfire burning near the town of Oroville has destroyed 20 homes. The blaze about 70 miles (112 kilometers) north of Sacramento had consumed nearly 6 square miles (15 square kilometers) and was threatening 500 homes, officials said.
Besides poor air quality, Montana lost a historic backcountry chalet in Glacier National Park this week to a wildfire. Firefighters tried to protect two-story Sperry Chalet, which was built in 1913 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.