Wildfire smoke brings worst air quality in the world to Seattle, Portland

Smoke pollution from wildfires raging in California and across the Pacific Northwest worsened in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, on Friday, giving those cities and others in the region some of the world’s worst air quality.

Public health officials warned residents to keep indoors with the windows shut, to set air conditioners to run on recirculated air instead of fresh, and to use air purifiers if they had them. Meanwhile, they wrestled with whether to open “smoke shelters” for homeless people or others lacking access to clean air amid the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about herding people indoors.

“The same population that is most vulnerable to the virus is also most vulnerable to the smoke,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan noted during a news conference.


Updated photo at Fremont overlooking Capitol Hill and South Lake Union with wildfire smoke. Top photo 'normal' Seattle day, middle photo is Friday, and bottom photo shows wildfire smoke conditions on Saturday. Photo credit: Kurt Ricketts

The sky turned a hazy, grayish white across the Northwest as winds that had previously pushed much of the smoke offshore shifted, bringing unhealthy levels of near-microscopic dust, soot and ash particles to Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia. San Francisco also continued to suffer from smoke pollution; those four cities topped the list of major cities with the worst air quality Friday, according to IQAir.com, which tracks air quality around the world.

The particles are small enough that they can penetrate deep into the lungs, and health effects can include chest pain, arrhythmia and bronchitis. Those with preexisting conditions such as heart and lung disease or asthma are especially at risk.

RELATED: Emergency shelters open as dual health crises envelop King County

The smoke was expected to linger through the weekend, another reminder of the vast and severe effects of climate change. In a news conference Friday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee insisted on calling the blazes “climate fires” rather than wildfires.

“This is not an act of God,” Inslee said. “This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways.”

Seattle ordered parks, beaches and boat ramps closed through one of the last hot weekends of the summer to discourage outdoor recreation, and officials were opening a clean air shelter Friday afternoon that can hold 77 people. The facility, which had been set up as an overflow COVID-19 care facility, is large enough to allow for social distancing, they said.

Parks and public recreation areas are expected to reopen on Monday if air quality conditions improve. 

Local Seattle area COVID-19 testing sites have also closed for the weekend due to poor air quality, including the Healthpoint of Renton site, Valley Regional Fire Authority in Auburn, and the Downtown Public Health Center in Seattle.

RELATED: Battling historic blazes on 9/11, twice the reason for firefighter appreciation

San Francisco officials were also opening “weather relief centers” that will stay open through the weekend, said Mary Ellen Carroll, director of the city’s Department of Emergency Management. City buses were free for everyone so those who need to can reach the centers.

Much of California was covered by a thick layer of smoke being pumped into the air by dozens of raging wildfires. In San Francisco, the gray air smelled of burned wood and visibility was clouded by “very unhealthy” air, according to the Bay Area Air Quality District.

Residents were also asked to avoid activities that could further degrade the air quality, including unnecessary driving, lawn mowing and barbecuing.

Working in University Place, a Tacoma suburb, Washington state Department of Ecology spokesman Andy Wineke said the smoke had obliterated his typical view of the Olympic Mountains.

“I can barely see my neighbor,” he said.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department recommends taking extra precautions and stay indoors with the poor air quality on Saturday due to the wildfire smoke.  A few things health officials recommend is to limit time outdoors, keep windows and doors closed, use an air cleaner with a HEPA filter, and for those that have respiratory conditions such as asthma, to be proactive and talk to a healthcare provider.

Click here for full coverage of 2020 wildfires.