But some fires in the region are inevitable, and thus some smoke should be expected, particularly east of the Cascade crest. This blog will examine expectations for the coming wildfire season and talk about common sense preparation that can make one "smoke resilient" for a minimal investment.
The Current Situation
There are no major fires in the Northwest right now and air quality is good throughout the region. In fact, there are fewer fires than normal burning at this time. The Forest Service Observed Fire Danger map (below) suggests low potential for fire right now.
And as illustrated by the accumulated precipitation forecast through next Sunday morning (below), the next week should be on the wet side (and cool) across the Northwest, with particularly heavy rain over British Columbia and Alberta.
This precipitation will delay fires in British Columbia (which was a big problem last year) and over eastern Oregon and SW Oregon. Although the models are suggesting a return to more normal, warmer, drier conditions in early July, this wet period will sufficiently moisten the surface to push wildfire season into mid-July or beyond.
At this point, there is no reason to expect more wildfires than normal or a particularly smoky season in western WA. I suspect that a repeat of last year's, two-day "smokestorm" is unlikely. But some smoke over the region is nearly inevitable.
Reflections of last year's smoke
Smoke is unpleasant, but one needs to keep the "threat" in perspective. Take last summer. Although there was several weeks of smoky haze, most of the time the smoke stayed aloft above western Washington, with relatively clean air at the surface.
To illustrate, here is the concentration of small particles (PM2.5) in Seattle over summer 2018. Most of the period was fine (under 20), but there was a period from roughly August 11-August 25th that was quite bad. Also note the spike on July 4th! So we are talking about a few weeks... no more.
The time to get ready for wildfire smoke is now--critical local supplies will be gone once air quality starts to decline.
High-quality air filters can make a huge difference.
Last summer, I do some experiments using a cheap box fan, with a high quality furnace filter mounted on its intake side. Professor Dan Jaffe at UW Bothell, an air quality expert, did the same. The impacts were huge---this simple setup took most of the wildfire smoke out of the air. We also found that without filtration, inside air wasn't much better than outside air.
Puget Sound Clean Air Agency did similar experiments (see below).
The key is to get a very good furnace filter (MERV 13 or FPR 10). Yes, they cost more (about $20), but are worth it.
So if you have a house or apartment with a forced air system, get one of these good filters, and when there is smoke around, keep the system running 24 hours a day (most thermostats have fan settings). And, close the windows if you can. You will breath much better.
If you can't follow that approach, purchase a cheap box fan (they are about $20) and a 20" by 20" high-quality furnace filter, mounting the latter to the fan. (Puget Sound Clean Air agency provides instructions to do so) and there are several YouTube videos on the topic.
If you want to spend more money, you can buy commercial air purifies for $50-150.
Another possibility is stock up in a high quality filter mask, but be sure to get one that is at least N95 or N100. But wearing such masks gets old, real fast.
Whatever approach you take, it is best to stock up now. Last year, the stores were stripped of filters, fans, and masks as soon as the smoke started. At my local food store, there is a huge pile of box fans available for purchase.
Better Smoke Prediction
There is one element of the smoke business that is radically changed compared to even five years ago: highly skillful smoke models run by NOAA, Environment Canada, and others. My favorite has been the NOAA/NWS HRRR smoke model (see below), which can give you warning a day in advance of smoky trouble. You can also use the output of such models to plan day trips to less smoky locations.
In short, there is much you can do to lessen exposure to wildfire smoke.
Wildfire smoke has historically been a fixture of the region, and the unnatural suppression of fires has led to forests that burn catastrophically. Better forest management and the return of regular fires (some from prescribed fires) will lead to an improved situation in the long-term, but some summer smoke should be expected each year.