The smoke-filled air here in Spokane is ominous and depressing. It conjures up competing images of the end of world. I recall the Biblical image my mother spoke of in which the earth and humankind is consumed by fire (as the promised alternative to another worldwide flood). Then I imagine how a surviving dinosaur must have felt 66 million years ago as the sky blacked worldwide with the debris of the asteroid impact that ended the Mesozoic Era. Both images are of uncontrollable, unpredictable, unmodifiable events. In contrast, the current atmospheric event was predicted and it is modifiable.
Last Saturday, September 12, Spokane, Washington, experienced the worst air quality for a 24 hour period since the county began recording to the PM 2.5 standard (Particulate Matter <2.5 micrometers in diameter) in 1999. "The 24-hour average Air Quality Index reading on Saturday was 368... That smashed a 24-hour record set on Aug. 19, 2018, when the reading was 257, also caused by wildfire smoke. Any reading over 100 is considered unhealthy for high-risk groups." (See P.P.S. below for my best understanding of how the "AQI" works.)
Check out this table of air quality events over the last 21 years from the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency (SRCAA). Look at the right hand column, labelled "Cause." Slide down. Wildfire smoke appears as the cause of poor air quality only on three days in the 16 years prior to 2015, whereas wildfire smoke is the only cause listed after 2017.
The SRCAA was established mostly in response to foul air from sources like diesel and gasoline engines and heating exhaust. The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, working hand in hand with EPA emissions regulations, engaged in community outreach to chip away at local sources of air pollution. During its first several decades these efforts significantly cleared the air. As seen in the table linked above, when the PM 2.5 standard measure was taken up in the 2000s "air stagnation/wood smoke" was the major issue. Once again EPA regulations around the efficiency of wood burning stoves coupled with SRCAA community outreach cut the haze. But here's the crux: what we now face is not a local issue. What we now face is a regional, national, international and global issue that a county agency cannot address on its own. In the fight against wildfires and climate change and global warming that underlying them, SRCAA is reduced to measuring our misery with the AQI numbers, telling us when to hide rather than dealing with the source.
Three of the last four years we have spent many late summer days cowering indoors, coughing, our eyes burning, our throats scratchy. The smoke comes from wildfires burning in every direction. Our Congressional District 5 U.S. Representative, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, has answers: We need to cut and clean out more of our forests. We've suppressed logging with regulation. While there is some truth in that it is a dismal failure as an explanation for the obvious ramp up of wildfires in the western United States in the last four years. The earth has warmed, as predicted. That energy added to the atmosphere has shifted rain patterns, fueled hurricanes, typhons, and tornados, even a new, massive, and destructive wind event in our heartland of Iowa (the "Derecho").
Choking on wildfire smoke in the late summer each year is an ominous call to address the issue that looms over us. The restatement of the Republican Platform by David Frum, a defector from the Republican Party, sums up the Republican view of climate change/global warming:
Climate change is a much-overhyped problem. It’s probably not happening. If it is happening, it’s not worth worrying about. If it’s worth worrying about, it’s certainly not worth paying trillions of dollars to amend. To the extent it is real, it will be dealt with in the fullness of time by the technologies of tomorrow. Regulations to protect the environment unnecessarily impede economic growth.
McMorris Rodgers mouths the words "climate change" but never gets beyond forest hygiene and hydropower as a response. Her dear leader, the President, the man she so unfailingly supports, is more transparent in the disdain for climate science that CMR conceals. He declares global warming a hoax--even as he works to build a seawall to protect his property in Scotland from the effect of climate change, a seawall he and his wealthy friends can hide behind. Is this another case of Trump understanding a threat like he did early on with Covid-19, while he deceives his followers to "avoid a panic"? He said of Covid-19, "It'll just disappear," even when he was aware it was a lie. In California on Monday, in response to a plea to address climate change, he said with a smirk (at 0:45),: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch."
Vote them out. Vote them all out. Let's address the problem before us before it really is too late.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency (SRCAA) was established by Washington State law in 1967 in the midst of the environmental movement. [SRCAA preceded the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, founded by a law signed by a Republican president, Richard M. Nixon. Remember when Republicans acted as though they cared about the environment and paid attention to the scientific community?] I urge you to poke around the SRCAA's website. It is another countywide agency chaired by....senior Spokane County Commissioner Al French, yet another example of this man's reach and power.
P.P.S. The AQI readings are a little confusing. Many of Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers we hear about are short term numbers, numbers that can vary widely over the day. (Those are the "Max.." numbers in the second and third columns of the table I cited.) Those short term readings are also the ones on this AirNow webpage (that's part of EPA). In many ways, the more relevant numbers are the 24 hour average numbers you can also see at EPA Website.
For any of my readers interested in the details of what the Air Quality Index actually measures, please read on. My source documents are:
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is an attempt to relate the concentration of air pollutants to the danger they pose to human health. Any given AQI number presents the danger posed by only one of six different pollutants (ozone, PM2.5, PM10, CO, NO2, and SO2; Spokane sensors only measure PM2.5, PM10, and ozone, the local risks.). If two or more pollutants are detected, then an AQI is calculated for each one--and the worst (highest) AQI number is the one reported. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (P2.5) are the primary pollutant in smoke, the danger with which we are currently struggling. Larger particles, PM<10, are mostly what we see and think of as dust. (The PM10 measurement includes PM2.5, but, since PM<2.5 don’t weigh much in comparison to dust, those smoke/soot particles, PM2.5, don’t contribute much to the PM10 measurement.)
PM 2.5 (Particulate Matter 2.5) is a measurement of particulate matter in the air that is less than 2.5 micrometers in size. The basic measurement is the weight of particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter contained in a cubic meter of air. (Technically, SARS-CoV2 particles, between 12 and 50 times smaller in diameter than 2.5 micrometers, are contained in this measurement, but they weigh so little that unless there were a huge volume of virus particles in the sample [very unlikely] their weight would not contribute noticeably to the measured total weight of <PM2.5 material in any sample.)
Like all good science the understanding of the risks of various pollutants to human health has been updated as new data is acquired. For example, the special health risks of particulates less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM<2.5 aka soot and smoke particles) compared to PM<10 (dust) were recognized by studies in the 1980s and 1990s. The PM<2.5 risks were recognized by the EPA in the new standard measurement and reporting of PM<2.5, measurements SRCAA has been making starting in 1999.