This summer, wildfire smoke has blanketed much of the West, with ash falling from the skies in Seattle, Portland and elsewhere. This unhealthy air quality is dangerous for people with lung and heart problems.
About a dozen people are hiding out from smoky at Portland’s Hollywood Senior Center. It’s one of the county’s designated cooling centers with air conditioning for those needing relief on the hottest days of the year.
“We’re one of the busiest senior centers,” Jennifer Young, one of the employees, said. “We have lots and lots of programs.”
With smoke from the nearby Eagle Creek fire blotting out the sun across the city, Young is taking extra precautions even inside the cooling center. She has an electronic air filter draped around her neck.
“It’s a personal ionizer. I’m not sure how it’s working, but I didn’t get a lung infection this year like I do,” Young said. “I’ve got really bad asthma.”
She also brought a high-efficiency particulate air filter from home to put in her office space.
As soon as wildfire smoke started flowing into the city from the Columbia River Gorge, Young felt it in her lungs. The particles in the smoke are irritants that can trigger an asthma attack. Young spent a lot of her childhood summers in the hospital when smoke from nearby field burning would close down her airways. This week, she’s avoided any hospital visits, but she has had to use her inhaler to help her breathe.
“My asthma unfortunately is not well controlled and I have a lot of lung damage because of that. Any time the air gets bad I’m going to feel it.”
A big question for people like Young is how much more bad air they can expect in the future with climate change.
“Like a lot of people, I look outside and I wonder if every summer is going to be like this,” she said.
Branden Haggerty tracks the health impacts of climate change for Multnomah County.
“We can expect to have to deal with this more and more often as the climate continues to change,” Haggerty said.
Haggerty said as summers get hotter and drier, research shows fire seasons and the smoke that comes with them are likely to linger longer. That means more bad air days and more health risks for people with asthma and heart disease.
We’ve already seen an increase in the number of acres burned and the length of the fire season, he said.
“Since the 1980s it’s more than doubled. So we’re now over a three maybe four month fire season whereas when my dad was young it was less than a month.”
The latest national climate assessment projects the number of acres burned by wildfires will quadruple in the next 70 years.
“So this summer feels like a lot but I can’t imagine what it would be like to have four times as much fire in the pacific northwest,” Haggerty said.
For people with asthma, it could mean some very unhealthy summers.
Matt Hoffman works on air quality issues for Multnomah County and he also has asthma.
“We’ve spent months now under the haze of smoky skies, and Portland hasn’t had it that bad,” Hoffman said.
Across the Northwest, some communities are facing unhealthy air every day for months, he said.
“It moves beyond that risk of my eyes hurt today or I might be having a hard time breathing today when it becomes a third or a fourth of the year that we have to experience these types of conditions,” he said.
This week, the number of asthma related hospital visits jumped 25 percent across the state of Oregon. Haggerty said in the future, we may have to find ways to clear smoke-filled air.
“The good news is we’ll get better at that,” Haggerty said. “We’ll get better indoor air filtration. We’ll get better air conditioning systems. We’ll plant trees in ways that protect us. But when I look outside I worry about what it will be like in the future.”
He said maybe the ash falling from the sky will lead more people to consider driving less and cutting back their own contributions to climate change.