The following was written by Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s Judy Olsen, an environmental health specialist supervisor:
On Aug. 19, an air quality alert for unhealthy air took effect. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency determined air quality to be unhealthy for everyone in Pierce County and much of the Puget Sound region. This means you should stay indoors. We expect the alert to be in effect for the next several days because of increased wildfire smoke in our area. You can monitor air quality alerts here.
Winters in the Northwest can be hard work. We have to cover outdoor faucets and plants and bundle up for grey, wet days. By contrast, summers tend to be more carefree. If you’re like me, you take advantage of the long, sunny days outdoors with family and friends.
Smoke from wildfires has made our summers more and more complicated.
From carefree to complicated: What changed about summer?
Last year, we had to worry about smoke from wildfires in our state and across the region. The same is true this year. August has become wildfire season. This new normal is not just for Washington. A quick look at the U.S. Forest Service Interactive Wildfire Map shows dozens of wildfires across the West Coast.
In Western Washington, off-shore wind usually keeps wildfire smoke away from us. But sometimes—as we’ve seen recently—the weather and mountains work to trap smoky air right on top of us.
How can I prepare for smoky air?
Just like you check the weather forecast to decide whether you need an umbrella or sunglasses (or, in some cases, both!), you should also get in the habit of checking the air quality every day. In the winter months, Pierce County can have poor air quality because of wood-burning stoves. In the summer months, ozone and wildfire smoke pose problems. You can:
- Get updates on recommended activity levels based on air quality.
- Monitor the air pollution monitor closest to you.
- Shop for a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter if someone in your home has asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a history of heart disease or stroke.
- Make your own air filter with a box fan and about $25 in supplies if you can’t afford a HEPA filter.
How can I protect my health once the smoky air arrives?
Wildfire smoke not only looks bad, but it can be bad for your health. It can cause:
- Itchy eyes.
- Sore throat.
- Sinus congestion.
For people in sensitive groups—children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with heart or lung issues—smoke can cause serious health concerns. Be sure to contact your healthcare provider if you experience troubling symptoms. For emergencies, call 9-1-1. Other ways to stay healthy when the haze gets bad:
- If the air looks and smells smoky, you may want to skip your outdoor activities. Use your best judgement. Stay indoors when possible.
- No air conditioner? Spend time at an indoor public place with clean, air-conditioned air like a public library or a community center.
- Schools, camps, sports teams, and daycare providers should check air quality regularly and postpone or relocate outdoor activities when the air becomes unhealthy.
Everyone’s health is unique. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have health concerns.
It doesn’t take a scientist to know when air quality is bad in Pierce County. Trust your eyes and nose and make sure you monitor air quality reports. If you prepare for wildfire season, you can be ready to take the right steps to stay healthy and safe.
Want to know what you can do about air quality? Check out our 10 action steps to clear the air.