Photo of the Seattle skyline with smoke covering most of the Space Needle

Preparing for Wildfire Smoke in South Seattle This Summer

by Andrew Engelson

After a record heat wave earlier this summer, Seattle is bracing for a West Coast wildfire season that’s now well underway. More than 300 fires are burning in British Columbia, a 150,000-acre forest fire is raging in south-central Oregon, and new fires are sparking in California and Idaho. In response to drought conditions, Gov. Jay Inslee last week declared a state of emergency and issued a statewide ban on most outdoor burning. 

With memories of last year’s intensely smoky skies still fresh, residents of South Seattle are preparing for what could be another hazy — and hazardous — summer.

For people who are more susceptible to adverse health effects, it’s especially important to avoid exposure on the smokiest days. According to the Washington Department of Health (DOH), the most at-risk populations are children 18 years or younger, people over age 65, pregnant women, and people with sensitive immune systems. People with chronic respiratory ailments or asthma are also at higher risk. 

South Seattle residents and Communities of Color are disproportionately affected by wildfire smoke. A 2019 National Academy of Sciences study found that Black and Latino communities are at a higher risk than the general population of death and adverse health effects caused by fine particulate matter.

“The South End community, we’re already in the middle of all of these health impacts from air pollution,” said Emily Chan, a community organizer with Got Green, a local climate justice nonprofit. “We’re located really close to industry, we’re located really close to the freeways — I-5 and I-90 bisect many of our communities. And so the wildfire smoke adds to that, it has a cumulative impact. It worsens a situation that’s already affecting our health greatly.”

The first step to protecting yourself and your family is monitoring the air quality in your area. An interactive statewide map on the Washington Smoke blog shows smoke levels in English and Spanish. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA) has an interactive map that shows local air quality levels, and updates are available on PSCAA’s Twitter site, through email alerts, or by texting WILDFIRES to 313131.

In an online video, Kathy Lofy, health officer of the DOH, notes these steps to protect your health when smoke levels are high:

  • Limit your time outdoors.
  • Avoid strenuous activity.
  • Keep indoor air clean with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
  • Don’t vacuum, smoke, or burn candles indoors.
  • Close windows.
  • Run air-conditioning (on recirculate) if you have it.
  • If you can’t take these precautions, consider leaving the area or staying with someone else who has air-conditioning or a HEPA filter, especially if you’re in a high-risk category.

Those who have asthma or other respiratory diseases should continue using their medications, take the above steps, and consult with their doctor. Symptoms from smoke inhalation include throat irritation and difficulty breathing. If symptoms become serious, call 911.

One simple and relatively inexpensive way to improve indoor air quality is a “filter fan” made from an electric box fan and a disposable furnace filter. Got Green, in partnership with Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC), is working to distribute 80 free filter-fan kits at events across South Seattle, says Chan. 

“We provide [community members] with the fan and the filter and show them how to put it together,” Chan said. Got Green provides instruction fact sheets created by Public Health – Seattle & King County that PHSKC translated into 22 languages other than English, including Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Amharic

If you’d like to build your own filter fan or learn more about why indoor air quality is important, read this fact sheet by Public Health. Or you can watch this short video produced by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. 

Along with Got Green, Public Health has partnered with Chinese Information Services Center, Utopia Washington, Living Well Kent, and Mother Africa to distribute filter-fan kits.

Of course, staying indoors when the air is unhealthy is impossible without shelter. The mayor’s office did not respond to an inquiry about the City of Seattle’s plans to help people who are homeless escape smoky air. A spokesperson for King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office said that plans are in the works and details would likely be released later this week.

For Chan, the filter-fan campaign is just one small effort in a much larger dream to create environmental and climate equity in the South End.  

“How do we get our community members the support they need so we can thrive?” said Chan, who pointed to an intersection of issues that worsen environmental inequities. “How do we advocate for policies that benefit our community and help lessen and reverse the impacts of climate change? And also provide the things our communities need to thrive, like public transit, access to healthy and affordable food? How do we keep communities rooted in place and not displaced?”

For additional information on staying healthy when air quality is poor, visit the City of Seattle’s “Smoke Ready Seattle” website. The page offers additional tips, including information on when and how to wear an N95 filter mask if you can’t avoid going outdoors. The site also includes suggestions for keeping pets healthy on smoky days: Keep them indoors as much as possible; avoid intense exercise; pay extra attention to older animals and pets with flat faces such as Persian cats and pugs; and use sprinklers to keep dust down for outdoor animals such as goats or chickens.

Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article stated that Got Green had already distributed free filter-fan kits and that the organization provides instructions in 22 languages. This article was updated on 07/19/2021 to clarify that Got Green is “working to distribute free filter-fan kits” and that Got Green “provides instruction fact sheets created by Public Health – Seattle & King County.”

Andrew Engelson is a Seattle-based writer and editor who lives in the South End.

📸 Featured Image: Smoky skies over Lake Union and the Space Needle in September 2020. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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