The Port Townsend Paper Mill is visible beyond the entrance to the Port Townsend Boat Haven marina Thursday afternoon for the first time in a week as air quality improved and visibility increased after overnight rainfall. (Nicholas Johnson/Peninsula Daily News)

The Port Townsend Paper Mill is visible beyond the entrance to the Port Townsend Boat Haven marina Thursday afternoon for the first time in a week as air quality improved and visibility increased after overnight rainfall. (Nicholas Johnson/Peninsula Daily News)

Incoming storm may aid smoky skies

Air quality likely to improve this weekend

By Nicholas Johnson | Peninsula Daily News

Thanks to a storm front sweeping in from off the coast, forecasters say people in Western Washington will be breathing easier this weekend as marine air and widespread rain clear out most of the region’s lingering wildfire smoke.

Coastal communities and other low-lying parts of the North Olympic Peninsula got a brief taste Thursday morning of the cleaner air to come after receiving some overnight rainfall.

When Odelle Hadley woke up Thursday, she checked in on air-quality monitoring stations around the region to find some coastal and northern areas had fallen into the green — or good — range after days in the unhealthy orange, red and purple ranges.

“I said to myself, ‘This is it. The cleaner air is here,’ ” said Hadley, a senior air monitoring specialist with the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency.

“Then, around 10 a.m., they started to creep up and turn orange and red again.”

That’s because there was still a large, multilayer plume of smoke hanging out over the Pacific Ocean, she said, which forecasters had predicted would be pushed in as the storm came ashore.

Cheeka Peak on the Makah Indian Reservation, for example, started Thursday in the green. A little farther inland, Port Angeles started the day in the yellow, or moderate, range while Port Townsend had improved to orange, or unhealthy for sensitive groups.

But by late morning and throughout the afternoon, Cheeka Peak and Port Angeles had risen back into orange while Port Townsend returned to the unhealthy red category, according to the state Department of Ecology’s Air Quality Advisory scale.

“Even with Thursday’s upticks, air quality still improved a lot from even the last couple of days,” Hadley said, not to mention the hazardous levels of smoke that poured into the region late last week and hung around into the early part of this week.

But that’s all just a hazy memory, at least for now, as forecasters say a storm moving west-northwest today and Saturday will, for the first time in more than a week, bring relief from stagnant, smoky air.

“At least for the next few days, we’re going to see some improvement really based on that weather pattern bringing more precipitation and an increased onshore flow,” said Kirby Cook, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service’s Seattle office.

With advisement from regional air-quality agencies, the weather service ended a smoke alert Thursday for Clallam, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. That alert was extended through noon today for Thurston, Mason and eastern Jefferson counties.

The alert, which was originally extended on Monday through Thursday after an anticipated storm failed to materialize, will remain in affect until 10 a.m. Saturday for Island, King, Kitsap, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties.

Lightning expected

The storm also was expected to bring some sporadic thunder and lightning, Cook said, noting that strikes Thursday night nearer to the coast wouldn’t pose much fire risk due to wet conditions.

But once that storm reaches the drier, fuel-rich Cascade range, any lightning strikes could pose a fire risk, he said.

Both Cook and Hadley said that, while this weekend will bring relief, more smoke could blow in as long as fires are still burning in California, Oregon and parts of Washington.

“There’s still some possibility for smoke to affect the area if winds shift once this storm passes, mostly because those fires are still burning,” Cook said.

Fortunately, the storm was expected to bring rain to fire-stricken areas of Oregon on Thursday night while also clearing out much of the backlog of smoke off the coast, Hadley said.

“The bulk of the rain will be down in Oregon,” she said, “which is where we want it.”

Forecasting smoke levels beyond a couple of days is difficult because so many factors are variable, Hadley said.

For now, the Peninsula has a weekend of cleaner, healthier air to look forward to.

“Even if it’s just for a day or two or three and we can open our windows and breathe some fresh air,” she said, “I think that will be a very welcome respite after all the smoke we’ve seen this past week.”

________

Jefferson County senior reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by phone at 360-417-3509 or by email at [email protected].

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