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Fires in Oregon, California: Smoke reaches East Coast; Sequoia Park

John Bacon USA TODAY

Published 2:12 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020

ARLINGTON, VA. – Intense smoke from historic wildfires that is filling the lungs of millions of westerners is now clouding skies all the way across the nation.

AccuWeather Meteorologist Matt Benz says you can draw a line from California through St. Louis and on to Norfolk, Virginia – pretty much everyplace north of that line is looking at smoke-tainted skies. Areas south of that line see less smoke due to air coming up from the Gulf.

“Amazingly, that wildfire smoke has traveled thousands of miles and finally has reached the East,” Benz told USA TODAY. “It looks like clouds, but it is smoke. And we are stuck with this until the weather pattern changes.”

The National Weather Service forecast for Washington, D.C., on Tuesday called for few clouds through the day. “However, smoke from wildfires will likely continue to obscure the sky to some extent,” the Weather Service said.

A weak cold front expected to sweep through much of the East in coming days probably won’t be enough to clear the air, Benz warned.

The upside is that the smoke is so high in the Eastern sky that residents aren’t breathing it. That’s not the case along the fiery West Coast, where the fires have killed at least 36 people and burned through an area larger than than the state of Connecticut.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom compared breathing the air to smoking 20 packs of cigarettes. The 7 million residents of Central Valley, a 450-mile-long swath of the state’s interior, were being warned to stay indoors to reduce exposure to particulate matter emissions.

“No matter which way the wind is blowing the Valley is getting smoke,” said  Jonathan Klassen, director of air quality science at San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. “The valley is surrounded by fire so no matter what happens we will get smoke.” 

In Oregon, at least 10% of emergency room visits are for asthma-like symptoms, said Gabriela Goldfarb, section manager of Environmental Public Health at the Oregon Health Authority.

Fire crews are doing ‘good work’ in Oregon and California. Now weather must help.

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Oregon ranks air quality as good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous. Smoke levels are fluctuating between unhealthy and hazardous for Oregon and southwest Washington. When smoke levels are hazardous everyone needs to take steps to protect themselves. Goldfarb urged people to stop working outdoors when air quality is unhealthy or worse.

And that COVID-19 mask probably won’t help much.

Paper masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles and are not designed to protect your lungs from smoke, the health authority warns.

“Standard masks are not completely filtering out the air,” Benz said. “When you have smoke in the air, you need a beefier mask.”

The smoke from California’s fires has reached Arizona, where Tucson internist Dr. Matthew Heinz is seeing the fallout in the form of patients complaining of breathing and other problems. 

“Even at this distance it can aggravate anyone who has underlying pulmonary conditions, asthma, those kind of conditions,” Heinz said. “Closer to the fires, anyone can suffer.”

Vision can also be a problem. Alaska Airlines and sister flyer Horizon Air temporary suspended all flights to and from airports in Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington, until at least 3 p.m. local time Tuesday.

“Improving weather conditions in the coming days could begin to dissipate smoke in Portland and Spokane,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement. “However, other airports in the West could be impacted by drifting smoke.”

Wildfire smoke and air purifiers: Here’s what you need to know

Forests are overgrown but ‘lawn rake’ won’t help, expert says

President Donald Trump this week repeated his claim that Democratic leaders in California deserve blame for the fires, having failed to clear leaves and dead trees from forest floors. That is a head-scratcher for Wally Covington, professor of forestry at Northern Arizona University. Covington agreed that forests have become overgrown and need to be thinned, but “not with a lawn rake.” Some of the policies that led to overgrown forests, such as aggressive fire suppression, were implemented more than 100 years ago, so blaming California’s current leaders doesn’t make sense, Covington said.

He also noted that two-thirds of the burned acreage is on federal lands and not within the purview of state officials at all. Covington said people living in areas burning now are paying the price because policymakers would not address climate change and the effects of fire suppression on forests 30 or 40 years ago.

“Amongst fire scientists like myself we’ve been convinced that this train wreck was going to happen for years and years,” he said. “I was hopeful back in the ’90s and ’80s that maybe we would reverse climate change effects. Now I’m kind of pessimistic.

Fire crews protect historic Mt. Wilson Observatory

Fire crews in Southern California were struggling to keep the Bobcat Fire from reaching the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, officials said on Twitter Tuesday. The fire, which started Sept. 6, has grown to 41,231 acres and containment has dropped to 3% on Tuesday from the 6% reported on Monday. The observatory, home to 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes, said on Twitter Monday night that the fire is “knocking on our door.”

It posted a photo of a red sun rising over smoke Tuesday, saying the observatory boundaries were “still secure” and that a team from the Los Angeles County Fire Department was working to protect the facility.

“It’s shaping up to be a good day,” the observatory tweeted.

Gov. Brown vetoes pieces of Oregon budget to fund wildfire effort

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown says she will veto 34 sections of state budget bills to help fund the costs of battling the wildfires. Among the vetoes: planned cuts totaling $65 million at the Oregon Department of Forestry. Other vetoes will maintain a balanced budget as required by the Oregon Constitution. 

Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod said the vetoes are politically motivated, saying more should have been done before this fire season to address forest management.

“Gov. Brown wants more money for fire suppression and state police, but only with an emergency actively burning down the state’s doorstep,” Girod said in a statement. “After years of cutting these budgets, the action is a day late and a dollar short.”

Fire burns through groves of Giant Sequoias

Two major fires have combined to burn over 150 square miles in the Sequoia National Park, tearing through groves of Giant Sequoia. The Castle and Shotgun Fires have “run through” the park, according to the latest fire incident report, burning some homes in the tiny communities of Cedar Slope and Alpine Village to the ground while leaving others untouched.

Fighters were struggling against what have become familiar foes in recent weeks – gusty winds and dry, hot conditions throughout the area. The fire, sparked by lightning strikes last month, have injured 12 people, forced the evacuation of over 3,000 and destroyed 62 structures.

Estimate: Up to $150 billion in economic losses from fires

The estimated damage total and cumulative economic loss is expected to be between $130 billion and $150 billion, according to AccuWeather CEO Joel Myers. That’s about the same as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, he said.

Myers said the estimate includes damage to homes and business and their contents, cars, jobs and wage losses, agricultural losses, infrastructure damage and the costs of power outages to businesses and residents.

Clackamas sheriff tells ‘you-loot-we-shoot’ residents to put down guns

Some residents of at least one wildfire-besieged Oregon county are posting ominous signs such as “you loot, we shoot.” And Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts says some armed residents concerned about looters have been conducting stops on their own. Roberts said law enforcement has the situation under control and urged residents not to take the law into their own hands.

In neighboring Multnomah County, Sheriff Mike Reese warned that residents to stop setting up illegal roadblocks or face possible arrest. “We understand everyone’s concerns and anxiety (but) roadways are open to all users.”

Contributing: Rebecca Plevin, Palm Springs Desert Sun; Tracy Loew and Connor Radnovich, Salem Statesman Journal; Joe Jacquez, Sheyanne N. Romero and James Ward, Visalia Times-Delta; Damon Arthur, Redding Record Searchlight

Published 2:12 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020

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