October 19, 2022

How Could Air Quality in Western Washington Be So Bad When the Wildfires Were Third Rate?

 The air quality was terrible in central Puget Sound and around Bellingham today. 

 Extraordinarily unhealthy with high concentrations of the kind of particles that can move deep into your lungs.

Around 6 PM, the latest purple air map showed an unpleasant story with the most serious air pollution shown in purple.  Seattle and its eastern suburbs were in terrible shape.

In fact, here in Seattle, the air quality problems today were only surpassed by the conditions during September 2020, as shown by this plot available on the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency website for its Duwamish observing sensor.

Compare the satellite picture today and that during the 2020 event (see below).   There is no contest.  WAY more smoke in 2020. 

The 2020 fires burned over a million acres in the Northwest.   Our fires this month were about 1/20 of that.

This is actually a very low fire year in Washington, measured by the area burned.

Seattle's smoke is mainly coming from two fires.  The Loch Katrine east of Duvall (about 1600 acres) and the Bolt Creek Fire (about 15,000 acres).  Neither fire has been growing much the past several days.

So why has it been so bad in Seattle?

There are four reasons: the fires' proximity, their elevation, and the inversion.

Let's start with the inversion,  in which temperature increases with height.  

On Monday, cool moved in at low levels with warm air above, creating the inversion.  Inversions act as barriers to vertical movement of air, and our inversion was roughly 3000-5000 ft above the surface.
As noted in my earlier blog, at first the inversion was protective, stopping smoke from distant fires from mixing down to the surface.   But inversions have their dark side:  if smoke gets underneath, it is hard to mix the smoke out.

Seattle at noon today

And that gets to the second and third points--the location and elevation of the fires.  

 The Loch Katrine fire was very, very close to the urban area and at very low levels (2500-3000 ft).   So it could inject smoke UNDER the inversion, where it would remain at high concentrations.   And close means little space to diffuse horizontally.

The Bolt Fire was also relatively close and lower elevation.   

 During the past few years, we have not seen such close-in, low-level fires near Puget Sound.

Finally, the low-intensity nature of the fires was an issue.  An intense fire can produce a powerful convective plume that injects particles high into the atmosphere--potentially breaking through the inversion.

These wimpy, smoldering fires kept the smoke low, where it was trapped near the surface by the inversion.

An intense fire can inject particles high into the atmosphere.

Fortunately, relief is close at hand.  Later tomorrow, onshore flow will increase and air quality will rapidly improve.  Real rain will come in on Friday.    A welcome change.

Finally, there are some folks and local newspapers that suggest that this smoke event is some kind of portent of the future, a symptom of global warming.   Good science suggests otherwise.  I will discuss this in a future blog.

Question:  If the Loch Katine fire started on Sept 2, and was only 2 acres a week ago, why was it not put out? Without this fire, the smoke in Puget Sound would have been MUCH less.


  1. I believe the Lock Katrine fire was (and still is) on private land. Maybe that has something to do with the lack of attempts to stifle it.

    1. Loch Katrine is on USFS public land, within the western boundary of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

    2. The Loch Katrine Fire started in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (national forestland) but spread to private land and is currently burning on both private and national forestland.

    3. Ah, it is both. I was confused by the statement about the fire: "The fire is still burning exclusively in private timber land and on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest about 30 miles east of Seattle, WA.". I guess I just read the first part about it burning exclusively in private timber land (without the second clause).

      For what it is worth, the lake itself is exclusively on USFS land, but often fires are named for a nearby feature.

    4. Therein lies the potential answer to Cliff's question- lightning caused fires (I believe this was) are typically not attacked within wilderness areas unless they reach a certain threshold. The recent east wind event woke the fire up, it reached preset trigger points and fire attack began. Unfortunately direct fire attack when hot, dry winds are fanning a fire often fails, and it led to a large fire.

    5. perhaps when fires are very close to urban areas (such as Loch Katrine) they should be extinguished when small....not matter what.

    6. For what it is worth, here is a map of the fire from a few days ago: https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/photos/WAMSF/2022-10-17-1822-Loch-Katrine-Fire/picts/2022_10_17- So it was basically two fires. The area right around the lake is Wilderness, while the area to the west is is a mix of private land, and non-Wilderness USFS land. You can see some of the lines (as well as the current fire area) here: https://caltopo.com/map.html#ll=47.62891,-121.62312&z=14&b=mbt&a=modis_mp. I wonder if the mix had something to do with it.

    7. There are parts of the I90 Wilde...., I mean Alpine Lakes "Wilderness" that need to be managed differently due to proximity to private land, highways, and other values at risk.

  2. Can you give any more insight in how tomorrow will play out in Seattle or Snoqualmie Pass? Any idea on timing for the smoke clearing?

    1. yes! i wanna know too, hanging on with every breath :)

    2. It looks to me like no dramatic event, but progressive improvement starting overnight Thursday and continuing into Saturday morning, when it should be fully improved.

  3. Looking to next weeks weather. Is the wind going to wind up with the incoming storms early next week?

  4. I am signed up for a Zoom meeting featuring Dr. Jeff Masters of the Yale Climate Connection and others talking about wildfire smoke and your health on November 4th which should be interesting. One can probably find the link - though I suspect they have reached their audience limit.

    Cliff I truly hope that the models are correct and this air does get scoured out. You are probably correct that the science currently points to a bad combination of circumstances for this particular bad air vent. However:

    These "circumstances" seem to be happening more and more frequently. Some of us have lived here for years - for me since 1955. I fully well remember the Columbus Day storm and others. I do remember forest fires, and the scars of the Tillamook Burn are still present. I also remember alpine areas full of glaciers that are now empty of them such as the Eagle Cap Wilderness. I don't remember entire towns disappearing off the map due to wildfire with our current increasing frequency. Some of that may be that the towns weren't there to begin with - places like Paradise and Weed were incorporated in the 2nd half of the 20th century. However people were living there years before. It just feels that the pace is picking up.

    The climate deniers, assisted by the Oil Industry and the same lobbying firms used by the Tobacco Industry have convinced a large segment of our population to believe that climate change is a hoax. Some scientists such as yourself, are perhaps a little too aggressive in saying that this or that event such as our current situation in Washington and Oregon isn't due to climate change. Are you sure about that? What factor does the stuck Jet Stream have to do with this?

    Ultimately, what is the harm in letting people Believe that these events are indeed due to climate change? Look how effective the opposite side has been by cultivating a false belief. Meanwhile, little progress happens where it needs to happen. By the time we stop arguing whether or not this or that event is or isn't due to climate change, it will be fast upon us and too late to reverse it.

    Many believe that we are way past that point. Maybe a strategy that mirrors the Republican Southern Strategy, which stirred the pot with such previously non-issues as Abortion to counter Civil Rights and force the Trickle-Down agenda could be adopted. Thus maybe letting the media run wild with these statements that this might be from climate change, might be more effective in preventing it in the long run.

    Also, your conclusions here on your blog aren't mirrored by such scientists as Jeff Masters and others on the Yale Climate Connection site. They are sometimes saying the opposite. This is specific to whether or not events such as the western town-devouring wildfires or things like the flood in Pakistan are due to unfortunate circumstances instead of climate change.

    Finally, there is an element in your reader base that agrees with you and bashes the "tree huggers" etc. I notice my posts sometimes never make it past your moderating (I suspect this post won't either) and these ones do. Frankly that does not look too good. I am noticing an uptick in eye rolling when I mention your blog. People are beginning to question your assumptions.

    1. I would have to disagree with you. We have to tell folks the truth. Good decisions can only be made when citizens understand the real situation. Your message reminds of folks who said: what difference is it if a certain Iraq dictator did not have weapons of mass destruction. We got rid of a bad guy. We now know the destructive effects of that decision. Global warming is no different....

    2. Yeah, let's get rid of Putin. Top bad guy in the world right now.

    3. "Ultimately, what is the harm in letting people Believe that these events are indeed due to climate change? Look how effective the opposite side has been by cultivating a false belief."

      People who think like you are why I'm on that side, just so you know.

    4. I don't know anyone else, but *I* am not a basher of "tree huggers".

      Are you insisting that the "stuck Jet Stream" is simply a new phenomenon?

      Can you explain the concept of "blocking"?

      How many times in the 1950s, for instance, was there a similar pattern to the weather? I certainly don't know ; do you know?

      The question is rhetorical because so many people want to blame "climate change" for weather events that have happened almost regularly throughout the past 1000 years. Or have they? BECAUSE you have no knowledge of the weather in the past 1000 years then how can you know ANYTHING for certain? People with agendas of their own can make trends out of anything from numbers, selling you with their "novel statistical methods" marketing ploy

      Emissions are bad, there's no doubt about that.

      But I suspect the hype around "global warming" is more about making money by the "doomsayers" than about the real problem.

      Is it helping the problem? I don't believe so.

      The public-mass has an appetite for bad news. They see it as entertainment, is my belief. Any mainstream-media source that can deliver dystopian future is going to generate more revenue for themselves.

      Are "these circumstances" more frequently BECAUSE of so-called "climate change" or is because of other factors? Cliff has explained at least once that less than 100 years ago, the situation was much, much worse around here.

      What they should be doing, in my opinion, is - instead of hyping up doom and destruction - is getting the public's attention focused on driving solutions towards superior alternatives that do not pollute our environment.

      And that starts with *you* and everyone else out there

    5. "The climate deniers..." Lost me right there, using Holocaust language for anything other than the actual event itself is nothing more than a disgusting smear tactic, and also anti - Semitic. Put on the dunce cap and go sit in the corner.

    6. Propagandists throughout history have claimed that the ends justify the means when they lie and exaggerate to the public in order to push a particular policy goal. You should go back and read the parable of the boy who cried wolf --- when you trash your own credibility, nobody will believe you when you actually do have a point.

      Scientific rigor, which is so vital to scientific credibility, is in shorter and shorter supply. Savvy readers of our news media are able to differentiate propaganda from facts. If you're exasperated at why seemingly intelligent people would buy into climate denialism, consider how willing you've been to lie to them before and assign fault where it truly belongs.

    7. My grandpa is almost 90 years old. I was talking with him recently and he didnt seem the least bit surprised by any of this weather or smoke for that matter... it's happened before

    8. Oh Kenna how can you not see that when "ends justify the means" thread in your words? Your position pushes thinking people away.

    9. I agree with you Cliff that we have to tell folks the truth, generally. My point is that people want to believe that Climate Change is happening, reinforced by things such as the lovely atmosphere we have been "enjoying" lately here in Pungent Sound. I don't see a problem with that if it leads to the kind of change that is needed to do something about it.

      Instead, your going on about saying that this and that disaster isn't due to climate change gives the climate deniers just a little more fuel. Just read the replies to my post. One brought up that old trope: "But I suspect the hype around "global warming" is more about making money by the "doomsayers"". You never seem to challenge them when they make such a statement!

      If I am getting rich by saying that we are headed for disaster, well then why is my bank account bare and am I living paycheck to paycheck?

      I think the fact that you need to recognized is that we are more a culture that operates on belief system, instead of science. I would love to stick to facts but the believers seem to be winning. At a certain point we may need to fight fire with fire, unfortunately. Especially when the climate denier side is funded by Big Energy.

    10. You continue to use the term denier. Funded by big energy? Why does big energy fund so much green energy then? Your position doesn't use science. "The end justifies the means" again, really? You may not be getting rich, look at those who are. It is happening.

  5. Nice analysis, thanks.
    In 1994 – how time flies – large fires in WA made the area of Leavenworth to Wenatchee, spilling south toward Ellensburg, much like the smoke you have been getting this year. The Tyee Creek Fire (https://www.historylink.org/File/5492)
    and Icicle Canyon fires ( near Leavenworth - "The Hatchery Complex" and "Rat Creek" ) are legendary. Many Washingtonians are too young to remember.
    This year the Ellensburg area has been hazy without much smoke smell. On the map you provide, EBRG is 13 and Cle Elum 11.

  6. Cliff - there was a Twitter thread from a person working on the Bolt Creek fire that is relevant to your question about why these relatively modest fires weren't contained in the way people might expect.

    The claim is that the fires "are being somewhat allowed to burn (in certain places) in order to create a buffer against future fires. The more fuel that burns this year is less fuel that can burn next year." See https://twitter.com/amonthei/status/1581719148463521792

    1. In many cases I agree with letting fires burn we do need to reduce the amount of fuel in the forest but weeks of bad air quality over a major city is not acceptable. I'm a runner and I haven't been able to train for almost 2 months because of marginal air quaity, I've gained several pounds and it will take 3 to 5 months to make up for so much lost training. This has made me think alot less of the forest service/firefighters and I will vote against many incumbent politicians in the next election. Air quality matters and there should have been more of an effort to put out these fires.

  7. i am skeptical that this high pressure ridge, which acts as a retainer for the smoke, will miraculously dissipate in the next 2 days.
    i would LOVE to be wrong here, but similar inversion-altering claims re: clearing have taken longer to come to fruition during past PNW smoke events, as i recall.

  8. Can we get an update on this pattern change? How potent will these fronts be? Will there be enough precip to knock down these fires?

  9. Hi Cliff, I was unable to find the ST article referenced, but found a similar article describing how "a warming West" attributed to climate change may lead to increased fire activity. In the article, they source state climatologist Nicholas Bond, quoting his as saying "Maybe it's an early indication of climate change." Do you believe they are misquoting or misrepresenting him and any possible ambiguity or context provided in his answer?

    The article goes on to state that increased fire activity may be attributed to dryer summers, which the UWs own precip model seems to indicate: https://climate.washington.edu/climate-data/trendanalysisapp/

    In addition, there is scientific literature support climate change as a driver of decreased wetting events and dryer summers in the west. https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1802316115

    Would be very curious on your take on this, and your opinion on summer drying trends and their relation to fire activity.


  10. Agree with your analysis on why there was so much smoke around western Washington from these fires. However, I still would not call these "third rate" or "minor" fires. Yes, they were small in size compared to the large fires lately in Eastern Washington or the ones in western Oregon, but compared to past fires in western Washington, this years' fires were more than third rate. The Bolt fire at near 15,000 acres is the largest fire in western Washington since the Forks fire of 1951, more than 70 years ago. Several of the other fires are larger than many of the other fires we have had in western Washington in recent years, and to have so many burning at one time for a long period of time is quite unusual. For whatever reason, very large fires, except in the Columbia Gorge wind area, are rare in most of western Washington.
    You wonder why the Loch Katrine fire was not attacked and put out before it got large, and at the same time blame the past practice of promptly attacking.and putting out fires as the main cause for our current spate of large fires. This is a big issue with forest managers now; which fires to attack and which to let burn, with the knowledge that it would probably help the overall forest health to have fire, but with much of the public not wanting these smokey summer days.

  11. AQI values reached over 300, even approaching 500 in northern Whatcom County, including the Columbia Valley, on 10/18-10/19. The Loch Katrine fire seems an unlikely source of this pollution given that areas immediately downwind and downslope of that fire didn't report such extreme values at that time - areas which don't include Western Whatcom County. The smokestorm that occurred in Whatcom County between ~noon on 10/18 and ~4PM on 10/19 was worse in terms of air quality impacts precisely because of the temperature inversion. The sun didn't appear red/orange at midday because the smoke was less dense throughout the air column - it was concentrated at the surface. This month has been characterized by a persistent temperature inversion. That's why the mean monthly temperature at Paradise, in Mount Rainier National Park at 5400' above sea level, is nearly 3 degrees warmer than at Olympia Regional Airport (OLM) at 209' above sea level. This blog post from Cliff is essentially a description of why the air quality has been generally degraded throughout the region this month: relatively small, low intensity fires which began some time ago, continually smoldering due to anomalous lack of precipitation and having been reinvigorated by recent downsloping winds, the smoke from which has been the cause of air quality degradation, combined with a persistent temperature inversion which has been in place continuously throughout the month with the exception of the disruption caused by the frontal passage which occurred around 10/10, after which the inversion almost immediately reestablished itself.


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