In case you hadn’t noticed, central Washington is still on fire. If you haven’t noticed, then you must live a long way from here! Raging wildfires have consumed nearly 150,000 acres of the center of the state over the past two months, with the most recent round of blazes (more than 100 fires) sparked by a massive lightning storm on the evening of September 8th.
While much of the attention to the Taylor Bridge fire near Ellensburg in August focused on impact on domestic structures and livestock, the excitement created by the current Wenatchee Complex fires and Grand Coulee fires has largely focused on air quality impact (though there are plenty of structures and livestock impacted).
I can tell you first-hand; the air quality is really bad. This is one of the few times since moving to the Wenatchee area that I can say it’s actually not been nice to live here. The graph below generated from the Puget Sound Clean Air Authority’s website compares air quality ratings for Seattle (purple) and Wenatchee (red) over the past 11 days. Any reading over 100 is unhealthy and over 300 is considered hazardous. I have never personally experienced air quality as poor as it was on Friday the 14th – visibility was literally like a blizzard – only with smoke and ash rather than snow. The worst part is that they are now projecting air quality like this for another two weeks.
The local and state agencies responsible for protecting environmental quality and human health are recommending that everyone avoid spending time working outside. Unfortunately, for the orchardists and farm workers in the Wenatchee valley and farmers on the Waterville Plateau and Columbia Basin, staying indoors is simply not an option. Field work and harvest just can’t wait for the smoke to clear.
On the few occasions when we experience a locally severe environmental impairment like this, it serves as a reminder of how much progress the US has made in protecting a quality environment. While we in the agricultural community often get bogged down in debates around imperfect environmental regulations, we also need to occasionally stop and appreciate how effective the US environmental tradition has been in preserving our quality of life. Consider President Nixon’s own words commemorating the signing of the Clean Air Act in 1970:
… we can look back and say … we signed a historic piece of legislation that put us far down the road toward … a goal of clean air, clean water, and open spaces for the future generations of America. – Richard Nixon, December 31, 1970