Smoke from western wildfires reaches East Coast; economic losses could reach $150 billion


SEPTEMBER 15, 2020

A tanker drops retardant as smoke from the SQF Complex Fire billows Monday, September 14, 2020, east of Springville. – Ron Holman

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA – Intense smoke from historic wildfires that is filling emergency rooms in the West is now clouding skies all the way across the nation.

AccuWeather Meteorologist Matt Benz says you can draw a line from California through St. Louis and on to Norfolk, Virginia – pretty much everyplace north of that line is looking at smoke-tainted skies. Areas south of that line see less smoke due to air coming up from the Gulf.

“Amazingly, that wildfire smoke has traveled thousands of miles and finally has reached the East,” Benz told USA TODAY. “It looks like clouds, but it is smoke. And we are stuck with this until the weather pattern changes.”

The National Weather Service forecast for Washington, D.C., on Tuesday called for few clouds through the day. “However, smoke from wildfires will likely continue to obscure the sky to some extent,” the Weather Service said.

A weak cold front expected to sweep through much of the East in coming days probably won’t be enough to clear the air, Benz warned.

The upside is that the smoke is so high in the Eastern sky that residents aren’t breathing it. That’s not the case along the fiery West Coast, where the fires have killed at least 36 people and burned through an area larger than than the state of Connecticut.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom compared breathing the air to smoking 20 packs of cigarettes. In Oregon, at least 10% of emergency room visits are for asthma-like symptoms, said Gabriela Goldfarb, section manager of Environmental Public Health at the Oregon Health Authority.

Oregon ranks air quality as good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous. Smoke levels are fluctuating between unhealthy and hazardous for Oregon and southwest Washington. When smoke levels are hazardous everyone needs to take steps to protect themselves. Goldfarb urged people to stop working outdoors when air quality is unhealthy or worse.

And that COVID-19 mask probably won’t help much.

Paper masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles and are not designed to protect your lungs from smoke, the health authority warns.

“Standard masks are not completely filtering out the air,” Benz said. “When you have smoke in the air, you need a beefier mask.”

Vision can also be a problem. Alaska Airlines and sister flyer Horizon Air temporary suspended all flights to and from airports in Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington until at least 3 p.m. local time Tuesday.

“Improving weather conditions in the coming days could begin to dissipate smoke in Portland and Spokane,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement. “However, other airports in the West could be impacted by drifting smoke.”

Estimate: Up to $150 billion in economic losses from fires

The estimated damage total and cumulative economic loss is expected to be between $130 billion and $150 billion, according to AccuWeather CEO Joel Myers. That’s about the same as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, he said.

Myers said the estimate includes damage to homes and business and their contents, cars, jobs and wage losses, agricultural losses, infrastructure damage and the costs of power outages to businesses and residents.

Clackamas sheriff tells ‘you-loot-we-shoot’ residents to put down guns

Some residents of at least one wildfire-besieged Oregon county are posting ominous signs such as “you loot, we shoot.” And Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts says some armed residents concerned about looters have been conducting stops on their own. Roberts said law enforcement has the situation under control and urged residents not to take the law into their own hands.

In neighboring Mulnomah County, Sheriff Mike Reese warned that residents to stop setting up illegal roadblocks or face possible arrest. “We understand everyone’s concerns and anxiety (but) roadways are open to all users.”

Courtesy/Source: This article originally appeared on USA TODAY