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'Definitely an early start': Early-season wildfire smoke a reminder to prepare

Smoke traveled down to Washington early this year as wildfires burn in Canada. An air quality expert says it's a good reminder to prepare for the season ahead.

SEATTLE — Early-season wildfires in Canada are causing thousands of evacuations, damage throughout 1 million acres and a thick blanket of smoke traveling south into the United States, reaching as far as Nebraska and including western Washington. 

Fortunately, this amount of smoke is not likely to cause serious health problems for residents. 

"This is definitely an early start," UW Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Dan Jaffe said. "Even though these fires aren't affecting us here in western Washington now, it's really a wakeup call -  be ready. Think about how you're going to provide a clean air space for your family and your home."

Jaffe is a nationally-recognized air pollution expert, and said some recent seasons for wildfire smoke in the Pacific Northwest have been "horrendous."

"We've just seen a steady rise - I'd put it by each decade," Jaffe said. "Good data going back into the 1970s or 80s and then the 90s, and then 2000s, and around 2010 things really started shifting that we just started seeing much more dramatic wildfire seasons."

The early start to smoke in the skies doesn't necessarily mean a better or worse season overall. But wildfire smoke to some degree is expected, and Jaffe said now is a good time to get ready.

"The most susceptible would be folks with pre-existing conditions, cardiovascular disease, very young children or very elderly - those are going to be the most susceptible," Jaffe said. "We need to think about how we're going to protect them and ourselves, your elderly grandmother or your young children, and how you're going to provide a safe space for them. So, even though these fires aren't affecting us in western Washington here now, it's really a wake up call: be ready, think about how you're going to prepare a clean air space for yourself or your home, get an air purifier, or a DIY fan with a MERV 13 filter."

Many cities are working on response plans that include cooling centers with air purifiers to help people that need extra relief. 

"We also have to think about how we're all going to address global warming," Jaffe said. "Because that's part of this, a driver that's driving decades-long changes. It's not the only driver, but it's one very important factor."

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