August 18, 2018

A Smokestorm is Imminent for Western Washington

Sunday 9 AM update

The smoke is moving in aloft (see satellite picture).  This movement will accelerate later today.  Smoke will surge in first aloft and then down to the surface. Air quality is still moderate near the surface.  More later.


You have heard of rainstorms, snowstorms, and windstorms.  It is time to create another one:

the smokestorm. 

And tonight and tomorrow one will hit western Washington, with air quality degrading rapidly to levels that may even be worse than Wednesday of the past week.  Vulnerable folks need to be prepared for this onslaught of smoke.

Large fires are now burning in British Columbia and eastern Washington, injecting substantial smoke into the air.   With generally westerly flow aloft during the past few days, western Washington has been protected, but the winds aloft are turning northerly and northeasterly, resulting in the smoke blowing directly towards us.

The visible satellite image around 10 AM Saturday shows lots of smoke over eastern WA and southeastern BC that is extending to the Cascades and even NW Washington.  Animations show this smoke moving directly towards northwest WA.  Low clouds are evident along the coast.

The MODIS satellite imagery around noon Saturday shows the approaching smoke more clearly:

Want to see something that is really amazing?  The smoke is dense enough to be picked up by the NWS weather radar (at Camino Island).  Here is an example around 12:30 PM Saturday, showing composite reflectivity (the highest amount of returned signal in the vertical column that is being sampled by the radar).

High resolution models predict increasing northeasterly and easterly flow aloft, bringing the smoke into us.    Let me show you the current forecasts from the NOAA HRRRSMOKE system for the next 36.

First,  vertically integrated smoke (total smoke in a vertical column).  Red indicated large values and purple is extremely high.

At 5 AM this (Saturday) morning, all is good in western Washington, but high values loom to the north and east.

By 5 PM Saturday, smoke is really moving into NW Washington.

By 5 AM Sunday most of western WA is covered with some very high values extending into northwest Washington from the fires on the other side of the Cascades.

 Even worse by Sunday at 5 PM.

Now that is vertically integrated smoke....smoke that makes the sun dim and hazes out our views.  Much of this smoke is aloft. What about smoke at the surface?    Let's take a look!

5 AM Saturday--a little haze but nothing serious.

Things are getting worse by 5 AM Sunday, particularly above roughly 1000 ft.

And substantial smoke reaches the surface by 5 PM Sunday.

Although HRRR smoke only goes to 36h, I suspect things will get much worse on Monday.  The UW WRF model predicts strong easterly/northeasterly flow at 2 PM Monday (see map at 850 hPa--about 5000 ft).  The gunk will be streaming over the mountains right into us.  Not good.

Monday could be an extremely smoky day and I expect that my colleagues in the National Weather Service will put out an air quality alert today.   They won't use the term smokestorm, but the threat to vulnerable folks will be serious.  One exciting aspect of the recent smoke events is the quality of our new smoke models and our ability to warn folks of such serious, health-challenging events.  If you can't stop the fires, you can at least warn folks about the smoke impacts and allow them to take protective steps.

Finally, an excellent place to go for real time air quality information here in Puget Sound is the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.   The EPA AirNow site is also excellent.


  1. Thanks for the post Cliff. Full of valuable information and analysis. I climbed Mt Adams Wednesday of last week and my lungs literally hurt by the time I got to the summit. Fortunately I had a rescue inhaler for such rare situations like this.

  2. Smoagedden...sequal to last year

    Friday Harbor

  3. Thanks for the detailed heads up, Cliff. Your reporting is a true public service.

  4. In other words... SMOKE-A-GEDDON

    You know.... for someone who calls out local media for overhyping weather events and giving them exaggerated names...

    Given that we are forecasted to be in mid to high 80s most of next week, does that mean we are in for an extended "smoke storm" for the entire week?

  5. That is really unfortunate, Cliff. I am sure I experienced much worse in Yakima in the 50s when they lit the smudge pots. I have never seen black, thick fog since. You know it is bad when your nostrils are black tinged...

  6. oh fuck ! wish i was in beijing right now

  7. Yuck. My asthmatic lungs are not looking forward to this. Is there any expectation that it will be better close to the water, like on the south end of Whidbey (possible escape location)? I"m guessing not based on the maps.

  8. There doesn't appear to be any escape... is there?

  9. Time to ponyup and spend some big money to immediately put out all our fires, (and Canada's, too) Elon Musk are you out there? We need an aggressive, forward thinking approach with lots of high-tech machinery.

  10. A couple days ago you mentioned the AirNow (US EPA) site. It looks like they are not reporting any monitoring site that reports readings above a certain level. WA DOE reports PM2.5 levels above 400 ug/m3 in Omak and Chelan, and 375 in Quincy. AirNow reports "Data not available" at these stations. Do you know if it's intentional, or might it be a programming glitch like the antarctic ozone reporting in the 80's.

  11. I've been watching one of the sensors that's east of Twisp, about halfway up Twisp River Road, just before the river makes a permanent turn to the north. The sensors at that location are at 750+ this morning. In fact, each morning the last week, it has spiked above 600, only to taper back in the afternoon and get down to 150 or so by the middle of the night.

    My suspicion would be up-canyon winds in the morning, funneling the smoke up into a narrowing canyon, and then the down-canyon winds in evening to flush it out.

    There are a fair number of rural homes along the Twisp River east of the town of Twisp (where the p2.5 is 'merely' low 300's to high 400's this morning.

    I don't feel so bad now about smoke in western WA. But man, how can anyone breathe at 750?

  12. The Air Quality web cam at North Cascades National Park in Newhalem this morning is quite something: a wall of orange behind a screen of conifers. Click on the Clear/Hazy button below the image to see what a 'normal' bad visibility day is like.

    Another Air Quality web cam based outside of Carlton, Wa (Methow Valley) and operated by the United States Forest Service shows how bad visibility is on the eastern side of the park as well:

  13. Jeff: If there were some magic way to "immediately put out all our fires (and Canada's too)" then that would have been done some time ago. Believing otherwise is denying reality. The scope of the local fire situations in BC are beyond what we are able to visualize hundreds of miles away.

    But it could be another good PR campaign for Elon, perhaps as much as the ridiculous submarine that his team came up with for the Thai cave rescue.

  14. I attempted some night photography last night at the Sunrise area of Mt Rainier National Park. By 9:00 PM, the mountain was completely obscured by smoke.

    Those "sun rays"? That's not the sun, that's a half moon through the haze.

  15. The way these big fires are going to be put out is when we get significant autumn rains and snow. Lots of money is already being spent all over the western states and all the wild land fire fighting agencies are already fighting the fires with thousands of firefighters from all over the US and even internationally. They are using man (and woman!) power 24/7, heavy equipment and air support where and when feasible. It’s hard for folks who don’t live in fire prone areas to understand the scope of these fires, the rugged topography in many burning areas that make it impossible to “just put it out” and the effects of weather especially wind which can spread fire in 5 mile runs so fast people have to be pulled out of the area. And where towns and people’s homes are not in the direct path, it may be appropriate to let it burn to clear out the fuels that have been allowed to build up due to aggressive fire suppression in the past. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s not that simple to just put the fires out.

  16. According to this website Seattle now (as of Aug 21 at noon) has the worst air quality index of all major cities in the world. Could this really be true?

  17. A warmer driving bigger and worsening wildfires. Big fossil fuel companies: "Sure, burning our products clearly drives climate change but because electric airliners and shipping vessels don't yet exist, pricing OUR pollution that we emit is 'unfair'." ◉_◉

    #YESon1631 #CleanAir #ClimateReality


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

New Podcast: Memorial Day Weekend Forecast and More on Western Washington Wildfires

This weekend will be a mixed bag west of the Cascade Crest but warm over eastern Washington.  The predicted high temperatures for the next f...