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Are Smoky Summers the New Normal?

Photo of Environmental Health Specialist Judy Olsen
by Judy Olsen04/05/2019 9:52 a.m.
Updated: 04/05/2019

Experts expect climate change to seriously affect our wellbeing. In some cases, it may have already. For National Public Health Week, today’s topic is climate change, the effects of which we may have seen during the past two summers. This is a post we originally published Aug. 20, 2018 during wildfire season. The region had several hot, dry days coupled with unhealthy air quality because of wildfire smoke. 

Winters in the Northwest can be hard work. We have to cover outdoor faucets and plants and bundle up for grey, wet days. By contrast, summers tend to be more carefree. If you’re like me, you take advantage of the long, sunny days outdoors with family and friends. 

Smoke from wildfires has made our summers more and more complicated. 

From carefree to complicated: What changed about summer? 

Last year—in 2017—we had to worry about smoke from wildfires in our state and across the region. The same is true this year. August has become wildfire season. This new normal is not just for Washington. A quick look at the U.S. Forest Service Interactive Wildfire Map shows dozens of wildfires across the West Coast. 

In Western Washington, off-shore wind usually keeps wildfire smoke away from us. But sometimes—as we’ve seen recently—the weather and mountains work to trap smoky air right on top of us. 

How can I prepare for smoky air? 

Just like you check the weather forecast to decide whether you need an umbrella or sunglasses (or, in some cases, both!), you should also get in the habit of checking the air quality every day. In the winter months, Pierce County can have poor air quality because of wood-burning stoves. In the summer months, ozone and wildfire smoke pose problems. You can: 

How can you protect your health once the smoky air arrives? 

Wildfire smoke not only looks bad, but it can be bad for your health. It can cause:

  • Itchy eyes.
  • Sore throat.
  • Sinus congestion.
  • Headaches.

For people in sensitive groups—children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with heart or lung issues—smoke can cause serious health concerns. Be sure to contact your healthcare provider if you experience troubling symptoms. For emergencies, call 9-1-1. Other ways to stay healthy when the haze gets bad: 

  • If the air looks and smells smoky, you may want to skip your outdoor activities. Use your best judgement. Stay indoors when possible.
  • No air conditioner? Spend time at an indoor public place with clean, air-conditioned air like a public library or a community center.
  • Schools, camps, sports teams, and daycare providers should check air quality regularly and postpone or relocate outdoor activities when the air becomes unhealthy.

Everyone’s health is unique. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have health concerns. 

It doesn’t take a scientist to know when air quality is bad in Pierce County. Trust your eyes and nose and make sure you monitor air quality reports. If you prepare for wildfire season, you can be ready to take the right steps to stay healthy and safe.

Want to know what you can do to help air quality? Check out our 10 action steps to clear the air.

Photo of Environmental Health Specialist Judy Olsen

by Judy Olsen

Judy helps residents breathe easier through asthma care management and environmental health improvements.

 

We invite your comments but will delete those with profanity, personal attacks, derogatory statements, ads or promotional material. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department does not provide personal medical advice; please contact your health care provider.