John Locher / AP
Forest fires destroy homes and communities on the west coast – and they also cause some of the world’s worst air pollution in a region typically known for its clean life and breathtaking views. The fires and massive clouds of smoke are also impacting the struggle to control COVID-19.
The air in Portland is currently classified as “dangerous” on the Airnow.gov website of the US environmental protection agency Airnow.gov. The values for the air quality index were between 350 and more than 515.
“If the prognosis is purple (very unhealthy) everyone has to cut back on outdoor activities,” advises the EPA website. “Very unhealthy” air quality is forecast for Tuesday.
“It’s a bit surreal,” says Dr. Jennifer Vines, chief health officer for the Portland metropolitan area, “addresses these worsening public health issues, air quality risks and a pandemic.”
Health experts urge residents to stay indoors to avoid inhaling smoke and ash particles from the unprecedented fires.
One of our @NWS_IMET_OPS took this photo yesterday outside of Springfield, OR. Check out how dense this fog really is! Today it is similar with thick fog and smoke covering the area. We are reminding you all to stay safe, stay healthy, and contact the emergency managers for safety information. pic.twitter.com/xAPZNH09Ba
– NWS Portland (@NWSPortland) September 14, 2020
On Monday morning, the international air quality monitoring website IQAir.com ranked Portland the number 1 worst air quality among cities in the world – worse than notoriously polluted places in countries like India, China, and Israel. Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles were also in the top 10, reflecting the huge size and impact of the forest fires.
Meanwhile, dozens of large flames in 10 states have set more than 4.6 million acres on fire, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That covers more than 1.5 million acres in Oregon and Washington, says the Northwest Coordination Center.
Wildfire smoke can be deadly. While it often appears as a large cloud, Vines says the smoke is made up of many tiny particles, each much smaller than the diameter of a human hair. “These particles can go deep into the lungs and even get into the bloodstream,” she adds.
People who are most at risk are the elderly and people with underlying lung or heart conditions. Children are also at higher risk, says Vines, “because they breathe a higher volume of air relative to the size of their body and because their airways are smaller.”
Whoa. Lots of fog and smoke, a lot of it pretty close in poor visibility. Many have reported seeing only up to 50 feet in spots. Make it slower and be extra careful along the way. Conditions will slowly improve later in the morning. #pdxtst #orwx #wawx pic.twitter.com/saWB3Ki1AA
– NWS Portland (@NWSPortland) September 13, 2020
The forest fires are also making Oregon’s COVID-19 strategies difficult.
Before the fires, health professionals urged people to go outdoors – but now they have reversed that advice. The test rates for the coronavirus have fallen. And when people get out of the way, many of them mingle indoors as well.
“We will be monitoring the COVID test numbers and hospital capacity very closely over the coming weeks,” says Vines. She adds, “But I think right now a lot of us are only going one day at a time” to keep people safe.
What’s worse, says Vines, “These are the same people who are at higher risk of complications from devastating smoke and COVID. We know many of them in the Portland area are Black, Indigenous, or Colored.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Agency urges employers to provide N95 masks when employees are asked to work outdoors. If employees suffer from an underlying illness, the agency asks that they be allowed to stay at home.
The National Weather Service issued a notice of thick smoke and fog covering the northern Oregon coast on Monday, stating that visibility would be reduced to just 50 feet.