a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Air pollution is so low there is little health risk. It’s a great day for everyone to enjoy the outdoors!
On a September visit to my hometown, John and I hiked between old-growth Douglas firs and Sitka spruce on our way to Franklin Falls. Rain-nourished maples waved their oversized leaves while maidenhair ferns popped lime green against the trail. Although I’d relocated to Central Texas, I traveled back to the Pacific Northwest each summer to escape the heat and gain a reprieve for my allergies, which intensified in the thick humidity.
Our hike was one of the first times I’d show John the dry and temperate summers of Western Washington, a climate easy to breathe in. The Washington Air Quality Advisory, which measures levels of particulate in the air, would categorize the day as green, or Healthy, and safe for all outdoor activities. Based on the national Air Quality Index but triggered by lower levels of particulate, the state advisory used color-coded dots of green and yellow on a regional map to indicate lower levels of pollution. The dots progressed to orange, red, and purple for higher levels based on dust, vehicles, and wildfires.
Photos from our Franklin Falls hike showed John and me standing beside a huge cedar for scale. I imagined us breathing in its sharp scent, the healthy air we took for granted in the early 2000s. Harmless as this longer dry season seemed, its hold was strengthening, just as my allergies were. Summer, now warmer and longer, parched the landscape on both the eastern and western sides of the mountains and threatened more intense wildfire seasons to come.
People with health conditions should limit spending any time outdoors & avoid strenuous outdoor activities. They may begin to have worsened symptoms.
Ten years later and under a washed-out sky, John and I headed east on I-90 toward Franklin Falls to relive one of our favorite summer hikes. The closer we came to Snoqualmie Pass, the murkier the air turned with a line of smoke cutting the peaks in two. I rolled down the window and inhaled the campfire smell from wildfires on the eastern side of the mountains. Near the summit of 3,000 feet, we entered the no-longer distant haze along with a sense of foreboding about potential flames just over the pass.
At the exit, we crossed the freeway to reach the Forest Service road to Franklin Falls. Smoky light settled in the underbrush, dulling the salal and huckleberries. If I’d known about the yellow dot indicating Moderate air quality, I would’ve limited our time there due to my respiratory issues. But I was still a year away from using a rescue inhaler to ease my labored breathing when I hiked uphill. I hadn’t yet recognized that my childhood allergies, rather than fading after years of weekly shots, had reappeared in a more intense form.
Even John, with healthy lungs, wasn’t enthused about the chalk-colored sky, no matter how short the walk. “I don’t want to hike in this,” he said.
I nodded toward the road we’d come up. “We could go to Snoqualmie Falls.”
Without a word, we jumped in the car and drove back through the muted woods on the service road with few cars and no visible hikers. We headed west on the freeway, past the smoke and into the foothills, swapping one waterfall for another. Once we reached the Snoqualmie Valley, the air turned a soft blue in comparison to the smoky mountain range a half-hour away.
Just past the high season, we had no trouble finding a parking space at the falls and walking across the footbridge to a series of overlooks. The thin strands of water from the 300-foot water drop paled in comparison to autumn’s deluge, which would overwhelm the cliff and hurl spray thick as rain on visitors.
For those living east of the mountain pass, the effects of an extended dry period were even more pronounced. In the summer of 2012, wildfires in the north-central region burned for a month, accompanied by smoke residents couldn’t simply drive away from as we had. By the end of the season, 100,000 acres had burned in Washington, devastating farms, woodlands, and wildlife.
Months later, a study from the Washington State Department of Health revealed children were more vulnerable to effects from the 2012 fire season, with visits for asthma and other respiratory symptoms doubling in frequency compared to previous years. More recently, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported 245 known deaths in Washington due to wildfire, both directly and indirectly. The long-term impacts of exposure to wildfire smoke, meanwhile, remain unknown.
Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (orange)
All sensitive groups should limit spending any time outdoors. People with health conditions should limit spending any time outdoors & avoid strenuous outdoor activities. Healthy people may begin to have worsened symptoms.
Before leaving on a trip to the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington, John and I woke to ashfall on our cars and a beige sky. We’d moved to Snoqualmie, the same town we’d escaped the smoke from five years earlier. On this gray morning, wildfire ash saturated the area in salt and pepper flecks that stuck to our windshield, as if determined to stay.
Across the Cascade Mountains, another severe wildfire season raged, burning a staggering 300,000 acres throughout Washington in 2017. No longer confined to the mountains, smoke stretched down the peaks and into the valley. Though Moderate in our area, the air quality rose to Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, designated by an orange dot on the air quality map, in areas east of the pass.
I bundled up our pug, Theo, for a drop-off at a neighborhood dog sitter while John put the ash-spotted top back on the convertible Karmann Ghia we drove. Heading away from the mountains and closer to the coast, we planned on leaving the smoky skies behind for a few days, or so we thought.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Julie, the dog sitter, once we arrived at her house. All of us stared at the charred bits of wood floating down like rain before Julie herded Theo and the other dogs inside. “It’s a good thing you’re getting away for a few days.”
Whatever guilt we might’ve felt about leaving Julie and the dogs, we drove away all the same. On the freeway, I stopped staring at the gray flecks behind us and searched for Mt. Baker, a snowy, inactive, volcano to the north, but it, too, remained hidden. The murkiness wouldn’t be as bad near the islands, I told myself, not wanting to admit the breadth of smoke extending into the lowlands any more than I wanted to address my own labored breathing and wheezing when I climbed upward. While not as intense as the ashfall we experienced at home, it tinted the air during our ferry ride and turned the water gray instead of its usual navy blue.
After unpacking at our bed and breakfast and with no air quality alerts in effect, we picked a short trek on Turtleback Mountain. On the way up, forest shadows gave way to sunny viewpoints and trees crisped from summer heat.
“Everything looks so dry,” John said, and it was hard not to imagine the heavy cost of a random spark from a car parked on grass or a tossed cigarette on the arid trail.
Bolstered with a rescue inhaler, I didn’t feel the impacts of the prevailing smoke, or at least hiked without the feeling I couldn’t get enough air. The sun glowed orange over the dusty mountain we climbed. On the way down, we stared at the sepia shadows and eerie auburn light. Although not as thick and immediate as the ashfall we left at home, the prevailing haze from Vancouver Island fires along with the jet stream-fueled smoke from Oregon and California fires created a stranglehold.
Insidious wildfire smoke, an accompaniment to destructive flames, contained gases and particles from burned materials that proved most harmful to those with heart and respiratory conditions. Older adults and kids, whose airways were still developing and were most likely to be outside, faced the greatest risk. Even the healthiest adults were not immune from the effects of smoke exposure, with watery or dry eyes, sinus irritation, headaches, and coughing among them.
Unhealthy for Everyone (red)
Everyone, especially sensitive groups, should limit time spent outdoors, avoid strenuous activities outdoors, and choose light indoor activities.
On an August day in 2018, the mountain outside my office in downtown Snoqualmie faded to a dim outline. “Does anyone else have a headache?” I asked two co-workers.
After realizing the dull pain we shared wasn’t a coincidence, one of us found and shut an open window. Plans for an after-work hike faded with the nearby mountains, which disappeared in smoke drifting from wildfires in British Columbia and Eastern Washington.
Red dots, indicating unhealthy air for those with or without health conditions, covered the air quality advisory map I checked hourly for my communications job at the city. On social media, I paired smoke updates with public cooling shelters like the library, the YMCA, and the hospital – places residents, particularly the elderly and the unhoused, could escape both the haze and the heat.
Given the unhealthy level of smoke, John and I, along with most people in the region, stayed inside. Like two-thirds of Seattle area residents, we didn’t have air conditioning. Following the recommendations of local agencies, John switched a window fan setting to recirculate the air. The whirring sound it made reminded me of the summer-long hum of Texas air conditioning.
The evening wore on, with John in his workshop downstairs, me upstairs. Shadows on the floor turned amber. I organized paperwork and paid bills, my mind drifting outside to the hazy trees and the mountain outside our window that was almost gone. Theo probably wondered why we weren’t hiking, but most veterinarians warned pet owners to keep their dogs and cats inside, too. Even housework was out – vacuuming would only stir up pollens and other particles, impacting those with respiratory issues like allergies and asthma.
“You can’t see the sun,” John said of the opaque sky, though it returned a deep russet in late afternoon. The neighborhood grew silent under a shroud of smoke. From the six-year-old across the street to the retired couple on the corner, everyone hunkered down, and with good reason. Limited studies revealed even short-term exposure to smoke could cause dire health effects.
A 2017 Johns Hopkins University study measuring wildfire smoke impacts on Medicare populations – those 65 and older – in western states from 2004–2009 focuses on respiratory hospital admissions on high-pollution smoke days. Results indicated African Americans and women were the populations most impacted by smoke. The study also revealed poorer counties had more respiratory incidents compared to more affluent counties, in health disparities that smoldered both environmentally and socially.
Very Unhealthy for Everyone (purple)
Everyone should stay indoors, avoid all strenuous activity, close windows & doors if it’s not too hot, set your AC to recirculate, & use a HEPA air filter if possible.
The next day, Mount Si and Rattlesnake Mountain both disappeared. Ashfall speckled our windshields in a gritty seasoning of white, black, brown, an eerie reminder of our trip to the San Juan Islands. Though Theo stayed hopeful, there’d be no walk today either, with particulate levels worsening to Very Unhealthy for Everyone – a purple dot on the advisory map. In the summer of 2018, the Pacific Northwest experienced the worst air quality in the nation.
To keep irritants to my lungs in check, I wore a city-issued N95 mask for my walk to the office. Although I felt self-conscious wearing such a fancy mask for such a short distance, I wasn’t the only one masking up. During a lunchtime errand, a co-worker and I spotted several people wearing the fibered domes rated for fine particulate and designed to keep the smoke at bay.
After work, I hurried Theo, who as a short-snouted dog was susceptible to his own respiratory issues, outside to do his business in the yard. While he nosed around the shrubs, an everyday sound like a child’s shout or a slammed car door pierced the quiet. The moment startled me enough to turn around, but the sound disappeared just as quick, leaving only the sun, fiery red and Mars-like, sinking between our house and the neighbor’s.
A few hours later I put on my mask to take out the garbage. A tangerine moon replaced the sun and winter-like ashfall made a poor substitute for snow. We kept our doors shut tight.
Inside, John ran the box fan with a similar-sized filter in front of it.
“Where’d you get that?” I asked, admiring his find just as he was curious about the N95 mask.
“I’ve had it.”
“Maybe I should get a few more masks,” I said, not realizing how much of a prized commodity they’d become a few years later.
“Is this how summer’s going to be? John asked. “You can’t give a glass half-full answer,” he said about the smoke although he may as well have meant my periodic wheezing.
He was right. The asthma I played down as intermittent would be diagnosed as mild yet persistent. The climate change we faced had become increasingly relentless, whether we acknowledged it or not. I remembered the green summers growing up here, with poor air quality more apt to show up in winter when people used wood stoves. John and I had traveled from the 100-degree Central Texas summers of John’s childhood to the smoky Northwest summers of mine, and I wasn’t sure what to tell him. State officials and climate scientists agreed these years, rather than anomalies, were something to prepare for. That even a temperate climate faced air quality in peril.
After a few days, the air shifted to Unhealthy for Everyone. I knew the drill about staying inside along with the recommendations to not go out and exercise. At the same time, I’d arranged a hike with my brother, Ken, on the mountain where we grew up. The air didn’t smell smoky, I told myself, although you didn’t have to smell or see the fine particulate to experience a scratchy throat or itchy eyes.
Bolstered with asthma medication, I showed up with Theo at Ken’s house on an early weekend morning. I listened to my breath for wheezing, and hearing none, we set out. Weaving between Douglas firs and western hemlocks until we reached the main trail, I saw nothing but overcast skies and the last smattering of pink huckleberries. The path met a gravel road, which although not as scenic as the trail, provided the most direct route in uncertain weather. Inhaling each switchback, I hoped we’d dodged the smoke.
Halfway up, the air turned opaque. I couldn’t tell if this gray mist was cloud cover or a blanket of unhealthy smoke. Theo and I slowed without losing sight of Ken. By the time we reached the top, the mountain was shrouded in either haze or moisture threading between the trees. We didn’t stay long at the summit and were restless to head back for Theo’s sake if not for our own.
Part-way down, Ken made a case for mist. “You can hear it hitting the leaves,” he said, stopping so we could listen to a rhythmic tapping that sounded like rain. It might’ve been the first drops of a cold front predicted to arrive later in the evening and a welcome change in this muggy weather. At the same time, we didn’t meet a single hiker on the summit or on the trails, which wasn’t a good sign; light rain wasn’t enough to keep most Northwesterners inside on a weekend.
Whether rain, smoke, or both, I took pictures of an older cedar cloaked in murky light. The trees next to it stayed hidden as the fate of our climate. The strength of public policy to temper wildfire seasons through thinned forests, controlled burns, and other methods would prove equally hard to predict, along with the political initiative required to protect landscapes, lives, and our day-to-day health.
Hazardous for Everyone (maroon)
People with heart or lung disease, or those who have had a stroke, should consult their healthcare provider about leaving the area & wearing a properly fitted respiratory mask if they must go outdoors. Follow burn bans and evacuation orders.
In the late summer of 2020 and several months into the pandemic, John and I visited Ken, who was as restless as the easterly wind gusting on a clear-skied Labor Day. “It’s way too dry,” Ken said of the low humidity and the washed-out horizon.
After an outdoor meal of burgers and salad, John and I returned home in tandem with a fast-moving veil of smoke from Eastern Washington wildfires. During an evening grocery run, the wind-born smoke draped Mount Si until it disappeared. We pushed our cart outside into a crimson sun. Used to wearing face coverings, we kept our cloth masks on outside, too, although they offered little protection against the fine particulate.
A few days later the winds changed and blew in a plume of smoke from Oregon wildfires. This time, I strapped on my N95 mask without a second thought and leashed Theo for a walk around the block. Even with a solid mask, the gritty smell hit me the first few steps while the trees drifted into mauve shadows. A maintenance inhaler and allergy medication now controlled my occasional uneven breathing, but even with meds and a mask, I was anxious to return inside before the air worsened and chilled in the peculiar way smokey air does. In terms of air quality, we were headed toward the Hazardous category, depicted by a maroon dot on the Air Quality map and a skull on the map’s coded key.
I saw no one on my walk. Spending extended time outdoors, one of the rare escapes in the face of COVID-19, was now considered off limits. With more than 700,000 acres burning in Washington and hundreds of thousands more in Oregon and California, officials advised residents to stay inside due to the poor air quality. Hazardous on its own, the smoke could also increase susceptibility to COVID-19. In this confluence of wildfires with a pandemic, the persistent, gray pall not only served as an eerie reminder of previous fire seasons, but also as a promise of what lies ahead, including fires on both the eastern and western sides of the mountains.
We spent several days in the Hazardous category before transitioning back to Unhealthy. On the final day of smoke, rain showers raised the air quality to Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. After spending several days inside, this felt like a big improvement, particularly with the promise of a Good or green air quality rating the next day.
I crossed the street after work to meet my neighbor and her now eight-year-old daughter, who loved to walk Theo. The rain paused and Rattlesnake Mountain, topped by the cloud cover I’d grown up with rather than the smoke we’d become accustomed to, reappeared. My young neighbor and I set off on our walk while her mom waved us on. With the haze behind us, we breathed the air, clear enough for now.
Gail Folkins often writes about her deep roots in the American West. She is the author of the memoir Light in the Trees, named a 2016 Foreword INDIES nature finalist, and Texas Dance Halls: A Two-Step Circuit, a 2007 INDIES popular culture finalist. She teaches at Hugo House in Seattle.