The tradeoff of a grey Seattle winter has always been its bluebird summers. But for the last three years, smoke has drifted into the city from huge wildfires burning in the drier parts of Canada and the Cascade Mountains, first blurring and then completely obscuring the city’s famous views in every direction.
This is the worst year yet. University of Washington weather expert Cliff Mass reported that, on Monday afternoon, a Puget Sound Clean Air Agency site in the city recorded the highest levels of smoke for a one-hour period since monitoring began about two decades ago. Last Wednesday, he reported that two spots in the region had recorded the worst 24 hours of air quality on record for either spot.
As the chronically smoggy Chinese megacity of Beijing enjoyed “moderate” breathing conditions Monday, some areas around Puget Sound saw the air downgraded to “unhealthy” for everyone. With that rating has come a minor panic, as the region bends around the hazards of the smoke as it might for a blizzard in the winter.
Pacific Supply Hardware, in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, sold out of breathing masks Monday morning. Other stores reported that their inventories were dwindling, or that they had upped orders to accommodate the demand. In a city short on air conditioning, some residents have begun taping air filters to their window fans.
The Sounders, Seattle’s pro soccer team, cancelled outdoor summer camps. County health departments called on people to skip their outside exercise and urged schools and daycares to move their activities indoors. At Sea-Tac Airport, planes were delayed for up to two hours due to low visibility.
Tourists taking the golden elevators to the top of the iconic Space Needle found the rotating viewing deck, but not the trademark views of the Olympic Mountains or Mt. Rainier. Even the south end of Seattle’s downtown was shrouded in murk.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan issued a press release urging residents to stay indoors and avoid driving, but some residents turned to their cars, adding to the smoke, to avoid spending time outside. Rachael Ludwick, who often advocates in City Hall for housing and alternatives to cars, wondered if she should drive her daughter to school in the morning instead of walking.
For healthy people, the short-term risks posed by wildfire smoke are relatively low, said Dr. Coralynn Sack, a lung care and pulmonary physician at Harborview Medical Center and the University of Washington Medical Center, although in recent summers, she has reported patients complaining about raspy throats and lungs.
Facemasks can be helpful: During California’s 2017 fires, Santa Barbara County handed out thousands of them to residents. Seattle has so far not followed suit, and Sack notes that the masks often don’t work anyway—you need a tight seal, which can be hard to maintain. Bearded people need not bother at all.
“I think my general message is that people are right to be concerned, but for most people who are healthy this is probably not going to affect their health,” she said. “The people who really need to be concerned are those people who are in those sensitive conditions” —infants, seniors, and those with asthma and other respiratory conditions.
For others, the real impact of the smoke is psychological: The return of the wildfire haze for the third year in a row is serving as a choking reminder of how the changing climate is affecting the Pacific Northwest.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee seized on this when he used the moment to advocate for Initiative 1631, a ballot measure up for vote in November that would put a fee on carbon emissions. “Today, this smoke may be opaque,” he said at a press conference last week. “But when it comes to children’s health, it has made something very clear, and that is the state of Washington needs to pass this clean air initiative, so these children can breathe clean air.”
Not everyone was happy with his use of the smoke as a political backdrop. But for environmental advocates like Ludwick, this connection makes sense: She wants to see local government use the in-your-face cloud to build momentum around more climate-friendly policies.
“Imagine Seattle taking this seriously,” Ludwick wrote in a letter to Seattle’s elected officials Sunday night. “We could immediately plan and implement real bus priority in and out of downtown with exclusive right-of-way. We could start a congestion price program now. We could fund free transit on bad air days. We could do a lot of things and we must.”
Every Seattle mayor in recent decades has pledged to decrease the city’s carbon emissions, but it hasn’t happened. The tech hub has been unable to keep pace with its booming population. In April, Durkan released a climate action plan for Seattle that is heavily focused on improving efficiencies in vehicles and buildings. She’s also announced plans to examine congestion pricing downtown—charging cars to drive in certain parts of the city.
In a phone interview, Ludwick expressed frustration with the pace of the city’s climate progress: She pointed to the speed with which City Hall recently rushed to save a threatened music venue and wondered why the city couldn’t do the same for carbon emissions. “Surely the fact that you can’t breathe outside is an emergency,” she said.
In the meantime, the smoke lingers on. In British Columbia and northern Washington State, hundreds of fires continue to burn. It could be months before the last blazes die out. For Seattleites, breathing relief may come as early as Wednesday evening, when the National Weather Service’s air quality alert for Seattle is set to expire. No word yet from the weather service on when the unseasonable—or newly seasonal—conditions might return.
This story originally appeared on Crosscut.