Here’s what to know about Seattle’s smoky skies

➡️ For more on the Jack Creek Fire and how it’s not such a bad thing for Washington’s nature, check out this story we published on September 8. 

Updated at 11:48 A.M. PST on 9/6/17

Over the last few days, wildfires have covered nearly our entire state in smoke.

If you woke up on Tuesday to a 93-degree forecast, brown smoky skies, and an eerie red sun and felt totally disoriented, you aren’t alone. Here’s a roundup of some answers to questions we’ve heard from Seattleites.

Where’s all this smoke coming from?

According to the WASmoke blog (a good one to bookmark if you want to stay up to date on what’s going on), winds from the east are blowing smoke our way from fires burning in the Cascades. The main culprits seem to be the Jolly Mountain Fire and the Norse Peak Fire, which was originally 13 fires. Both fires have been burning in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest since lightning strikes on August 10 and 11. A third fire, the Jack Creek Fire, was also started by lightning in the area and is still burning.

But wait, there’s more. On Tuesday morning, the Eagle Creek and Indian Creek Fires crossed the Columbia River from Oregon and entered Washington. And the Diamond Creek Fire crossed into our state from Canada on August 29. Both of those fires were caused by humans.

And, unfortunately, that’s still not all. This map shows all of the active fire incidents in Washington and Oregon and is being updated by the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center here.

That’s a lot of fires. Are they under control?

On Saturday, Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for every county in the state, which means resources like the State and National Guards can work hard to contain the burning. Some fires in our state have been contained and some aren’t yet. You can stay updated on the individual fires we mentioned (none of them are contained yet) by following these links:

For updates on the statuses of all the fires in our state in one place, go here.

What’s all the ash about?

Lots of Seattleites woke up this morning to ash on their cars and other outdoor surfaces.

King5 interviewed a rep from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency who was just as surprised as the rest of us to see ash in Seattle. He likened the ash falling out of this “smoke cloud” to raindrops falling out of a raincloud, and said it’s because the fires are close and the smoke’s traveling quickly. You can watch that interview here.

Oh, and don’t just wipe that ash off your car. Apparently it can damage the paint. Instead, KING5 says to “thoroughly wash and dry your car instead.”

Easterly winds aren’t very common here. What’s the weather pattern that’s bringing us smoke from the east side?

We’ll let Cliff Mass handle this one. In his blog post on Monday, he predicted this (which he later confirmed actually happened):

“During the next 48 h, building high pressure east of the Cascades will allow an area of low pressure (the thermal trough) to build northward out of California and the development of easterly (from the east) flow over the Cascades. Such easterly flow will move the eastern WA smoke over us and warm temperatures (particularly with flow descending the western slopes of the Cascades and thus warming by compression).”

In non-weather speak, it sounds to us like a combination of pressure changes and high temperatures led to the weird wind.

When should the smoke clear out?

Weatherman Cliff Mass says that we should expect more smoke throughout the day Tuesday, and the WASmoke blog says it should clear out by Thursday.

Didn’t this already happen earlier this summer?

There was lots of smoke in Seattle’s air in early August, but that was from wildfires in British Columbia.

Is this much fire and smoke in one summer normal?

Cliff, who has a pretty deep historical knowledge of this area, shared some reactions in a blog post:

“I have been forecasting around here for a long time and have never seen a situation like this.”

“I never seen anything like this around here over the past 30 years.”

“This is clearly the worst smoke year in Seattle that anyone can remember.”  

And one man said this to KOMO:

“Last time I saw ash fall around Seattle I was 7. May 18th 1980.”

That’s when Mt. Saint Helens erupted. So it’s safe to say no, this isn’t normal at all.

Is it safe for me to go outside?

Luckily, we’re only at a “moderate level” for air quality (as of Tuesday at noon), which AirNow says may start to affect a “very small number of people.”

Keep track of the air quality in your area here or here. There’s also this smartphone app.

Generally, the Washington State Department of Health (WSDH) says that smoke like this “contains very small particles and gases, including carbon monoxide,” and that can cause problems for your eyes and lungs. When the air quality gets bad, it can really bother people with conditions like asthma, diabetes, and colds and is especially dangerous for children and older adults.

Like to work out outside? WSDH says to “avoid outdoor exercise when air quality is in the ‘Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, or Hazardous’ categories.”

How can I help?

Help prevent more fires by respecting the burn bans that might be in effect. There are three types, so check the status for where you live by looking at each of these links: Air quality, Fire Safety, and DNR (Department of Natural Resources).

Interested in preventing and fighting future wildfires yourself? Washington’s Department of Natural Resources Wildfire Division has volunteer opportunities you might be interested in.

I have more questions you didn’t answer!

Great. Send ’em to us at [email protected] and we’ll do our best to answer them.