Ted S. Warren / AP

Northwest wildfire smoke prompts air quality warnings across western US

Alerts issued across Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Colorado; weekend winds could spread flames

Smoke from Pacific Northwest wildfires is creating hazardous air quality in states including Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Colorado — and the choking haze could soon spread north into Canada — authorities monitoring the fires said Friday, as residents reported ash raining from the sky, small-town stores sold out of face masks and more flame-driving winds were forecast for the weekend.

“All the smoke mixes together, but the majority of the smoke is originating in central and northern Idaho, northeast Oregon and northeast Washington,” Robyn Heffernan, a fire meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) based in Boise, Idaho, told Al Jazeera.

A cluster of fires — among more than 70 blazing across Western states — escalated in Washington state this week. Three firefighters were killed battling the fires days ago, and thousands of residents have been evacuated in central and eastern parts of the state.

An evacuation order remained in effect around Lake Chelan, a resort area in central Washington, after dozens of structures were lost in a fire that jumped containment lines.

Virginia Caldanas, store manager of Red Apple Market in Manson, a town about a mile from Chelan, said the air quality was worsening because of the Twisp River Fire around the nearby towns of Twisp and Winthrop.

“A lot of ashes are falling everywhere,” Caldanas told Al Jazeera, adding that the store has been selling out of face masks because of the bad air quality.

“The smoke is really bad right now. We can’t even keep up with the masks — they’re going out really fast. We get new masks in and they’re gone within hours.”

Most people are just trying to stay indoors, Caldanas said.

The fires across the Northwest have covered much of the region with smoke clouds that can be seen from space, NASA satellite photos showed.

The images show smoke from wildfires in Washington, Oregon and Idaho looping north into Canada before dropping down into western Montana and Colorado, according to a Washington state blog updated by county, state and federal agencies as well as Indian tribes.

Air quality advisories have been issued in parts of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Colorado, state monitoring websites showed. The warnings ranged from “unsafe for sensitive groups” — meaning people with lung or heart disease, older residents and children — to “very unhealthy.”

The Washington State Department of Ecology and the NWS have issued an air quality alert in cities in the state’s east, warning that in some areas it would be unhealthy to breathe, a press release said. The worst air quality in Washington was recorded in Twisp and surrounding areas, according to an inter-governmental air quality monitoring website called AirNow.

Air quality alerts have also been issued in cities across Idaho, including a red alert for Boise, Heffernan said. Some of the smoke has even traveled east into Montana, she added.

AirNow — a joint effort by the EPA, NOAA, National Park Service, tribal, state and local agencies — warned that on Friday, residents of northwestern Colorado could be hit with some of their worst air quality yet from smoke blown into the state.

In Oregon, the Canyon Creek Fire near the Idaho border has also hit air quality, Paul Koprowski, air program coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), told Al Jazeera.

The EPA has a constant, nationwide air quality monitoring system, but it operates mostly in large population centers, Koprowski said.

Because the current fires are in rural areas, each state or the U.S. Forest Service will deploy mobile monitoring networks, Koprowski said.

“They keep track of where the smoke is going and how intense the smoke is,” he added.

The various state agencies then communicate that information to the public so they can make informed decisions about whether or not to stay in their homes, Koprowski said.

“When you’re fighting fires, usually the top priority is to preserve property, but we want to help people understand what impact it might have on their lungs and health,” he said. “There are provisions in the regulatory world that say if the level of smoke gets so high that it becomes an imminent danger to health, those rules kick in and they can force the evacuation.”

With a windy front expected to travel through the Northwest this weekend, existing fires could spread, Heffernan said. Koprowski added that the likelihood of lightening strikes was low, however, meaning there was little chance of new fires being sparked.

“As we get into this weekend, a front will be moving through that will increase fire activity,” Hefferman said, adding that the smoke would likely be pushed northward. The Canadian province of British Columbia is located just north of Washington state.

In September, meteorologists expect a cold front to move in bringing wetter weather and rains that should help firefighters get the blaze under control, Heffernan said.

Residents still on the ground in affected areas can do little but wait.

“We’re trying to make the best of it,” said Caldanas, the storeowner in Manson, Washington. “Hopefully this will be over soon.”

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