Smoky days

A smoky haze was as thick as typical winter fog in Walla Walla this weekend. Air monitors advised people — regardless of health status — to stay indoors.

An unrestrained wall of smoke swept across Western states this weekend, bringing unhealthy air quality and government recommendations many have gotten used to this year — stay indoors.

In Walla Walla, the air was far into the “hazardous” range, forcing some people, including business owners, into uncomfortable predicaments.

“With air quality at these levels, everybody should be taking precautions,” said Andy Wineke, an air quality spokesman for the Washington state Department of Ecology. “This isn’t time to shrug your shoulders and soldier through.

“... As the old saying goes, ‘the dose makes the poison.’ Well, this smoke is the poison.”

Friday morning was another beautiful day in the Walla Walla Valley.

At 10 a.m., the sun was shining, skies were blue, and a slight scent of smoke was in the air — a typical September day.

By 11 a.m., the smoke was stronger. By noon it was unsafe to be outside.

Now, meteorologists and air monitors are saying this unhealthy level of smoke will stick around in the Valley likely through Monday.

“We might have a little relief (today) … but most likely Monday,” said meteorologist Dan Slagle with the National Weather Service in Pendleton.

Slagle said the thick haze was moving very slowly across the Northwest after gathering off the West Coast from wildfires in California and combining with smoke from fires in Oregon and Washington.

Air quality is measured by a standard known as PM2.5, which refers to particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Those particles are then measured in micro-grams per cubic meter of air. A good day would have a score below 50.

According to AirNow, the official U.S. Air Quality Index, Friday morning at 9 a.m. measured at 79 in the Valley — moderate. By Friday at 9 p.m., the measurement was 454, which is 154 points above the “hazardous” line, meaning the particulate level is unsafe for anybody, regardless of health status.

Some readings from AirNow were unavailable from Friday, but the Department of Ecology air pollution website did not list any measurements over 454. The rating was above 400 for most of Saturday.

A screenshot circulating online showed a rating of 466 at 5 p.m. Friday for Walla Walla. However, measurements from 1-6 p.m. Friday had been removed from the AirNow site as of Saturday afternoon and couldn’t be verified.

Wineke said 24 hours of bad air is one thing, but to have more than two days of extended hazardous air quality is a serious problem for some, in particular for those who already have severe breathing problems, and for others could lead to lifelong health problems.

Dave Beamer, owner and operator of three Dutch Bros. Coffee locations in the Valley, said he wasn’t willing to take that risk and closed his three venues Friday night. He said he was prepared to be closed all weekend, if necessary.

Beamer said the constant open windows made it too hazardous for his workers, especially since most of them were likely not wearing N95 masks — a mask that’s rated to filter out some PM2.5 particles, as opposed to cloth masks.

“For me, I’m not going to ask my employees to do something that I don’t feel comfortable doing,” Beamer said of working outside. “Their health and safety is more important than the bottom line of my business.”

Beamer said he was hoping to see the PM2.5 count drop below 200 before allowing the shops to open again, but he was doubtful it would happen today.

“Either way, I’ll be setting my alarm for 3:30 (this morning) to check the number,” Beamer said.

The Downtown Walla Walla Foundation canceled Saturday’s Downtown Farmers Market and also said seating at the Plaza on 1st would be greatly reduced.

Restaurants like Public House 124 and Sweet Basil Pizzeria encouraged customers to eat inside, despite limited capacity from COVID-19 precautions.

“If it’s not one thing this year, it’s another,” Beamer said of businesses facing ups and downs in 2020.

Wineries were also caught between a rock and a smokescreen this weekend because customers aren’t allowed to taste wine inside under Phase 2. Some wine tasters were braving the smoke Saturday afternoon, but visitors were clearly much more scarce in Walla Walla.

For those wondering how to get out of the haze, the Department of Ecology reported on its smoke blog that there were “no pockets of clean air” to escape to either in the mountains or in valleys.

The department’s smoke expert, Ranil Dhammapala, wrote “your favorite campground or hiking trail isn’t going to be magically shielded from smoke, no matter what the elevation.”

Dhammapala called the smoke cloud billowing off the coast of Oregon a “super-massive” plume.

He also said forecasts for smoke are difficult to predict and can only go 24 hours into the future.

Walla Walla County’s departments of Community Health and Emergency Management issued an air quality advisory Friday and encouraged people to check back with the Department of Ecology website for the latest updates over the weekend.

Jedidiah Maynes can be reached at jedidiahmaynes@wwub.com or 509-526-8318.

Jedidiah Maynes is the managing editor of Walla Walla Lifestyles magazine. He also writes about business news in the Valley and covers a variety of others topics on occasion. He enjoys making music and puns.