A choking fog of grayish smoke settled Tuesday over the Tri-Cities, forcing children off playgrounds and outdoor workers to put on respirator masks.
And it’s not expected to clear out for days.
The air quality in the Tri-Cities deteriorated to a level rated as “very unhealthy” at times.
In the morning everyone was advised to stay indoors and those who could not avoid being outside were told to consider wearing an N-95 respirator mask, according to information from the Washington State Department of Ecology. Many hardware stores sell the masks.
“There is not a lot we can do but wait it out,” said Alex Sligar, air quality specialist with the Benton Clean Air Agency. “People need to take precautions.”
Schools canceled outdoor recesses and physical education classes were moved indoors on Tuesday. Sports practices also were moved inside or canceled, and most outdoor sports matches were canceled or postponed.
By Tuesday afternoon there had been some improvement, but the air remained smoky enough to be rated as “unhealthy” according to the Benton Clean Air Agency.
Wildfires raging across the West were fouling the air from Washington state to the Great Lakes, said Rob Rodgers, air quality engineer with the Benton Clean Air Agency.
Smoke from fires in California and Oregon was moving north and then being channeled east, including down the Columbia River Gorge, he said.
More smoke was being picked up from the Eagle Creek fire burning in the Columbia gorge. A section of Interstate 84 between Portland and the Tri-Cities was closed.
Later in the day the Benton Clean Air Agency said fires throughout the region — including in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, California and British Columbia — were contributing to smoky air.
The sky over the Tri-Cities Tuesday was gray and the smell of smoke smothered the area.
Everyone — not just children, older adults and those with chronic illnesses — can expect to experience health effects from the smoke when it is rated as unhealthy, according to an advisory from the Benton-Franklin Health District.
Everyone should limit time spent outdoors and put off strenuous activity indoors until air quality improves, it said.
The National Weather Service extended an air quality alert for the Tri-City area through noon Friday and it could be extended again. Its forecast showed widespread haze over the Tri-Cities at least through the next weekend and into Monday.
Some improvement in air quality may be seen sometime from Thursday night through the weekend, as a high pressure system over the Tri-Cities shifts to the east, according to the weather service.
It could allow smoky air to mix with air blowing in from the west and southwest.
However, air quality could still be problematic, especially if fires to the west and southwest of the Tri-Cities continue to burn, sending more smoke over the Tri-Cities.
The hazy skies were moderating temperatures in the Tri-Cities, including keeping the temperature at the Pasco airport below 90 degrees late Tuesday afternoon.
Washington State Department of Ecology and Benton Clean Air Agency sites with air quality data were being overwhelmed by people searching for information on Tuesday. However, the AirNow site of the Environmental Protection Agency continued to operate at bit.ly/AirNowWA.
The Wednesday farmers market in downtown Pasco has been canceled because of the smoky air.
Most Tri-City-area schools were following the health district’s recommendation to suspend outdoor activities on Tuesday. The district also recommended that daycare centers and preschools keep children indoors and keep activity levels light.
Principals at Richland and Pasco schools were advised by district officials to make sure students were not waiting in lines outside buildings. They also reminded students and staff to drink plenty of fluids to keep lungs hydrated.
“The safety of students and staff is a priority and we will continue to monitor the air quality advisories regularly and make any adjustment,” the Kennewick School District said in an announcement.