Dangerous air quality forces Whatcom residents indoors

Mt. Baker Hill Climb, Western women’s soccer match canceled
September 11, 2022 at 5:58 p.m.
In  Bellingham Bay, the schooner Zodiac raises its sails under haze from forest fires on Sept. 11.
In Bellingham Bay, the schooner Zodiac raises its sails under haze from forest fires on Sept. 11. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

Due to heavy wildfire smoke, Whatcom County residents opted to stay inside and several outdoor events were canceled on Sunday out of safety concerns for participants and spectators. The Mt. Baker Hill Climb, an annual bike race on Highway 542, and a Western Washington University women’s soccer game were two of the highest-profile cancellations.

Multiple wildfires are raging throughout the Cascade Range, and eastwardly winds are bringing in dangerous amounts of smoke across most of the Puget Sound. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports five large, active wildfires and more than two dozen smaller wildfires throughout the state.  

The Bolt Creek fire, north of Skykomish in Snohomish County, and the Northwest Pasayten Wilderness fire, near the Canadian border in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, are responsible for the majority of smoke wafting into Western Washington, the DNR said.  

Air Quality Index (AQI) readings for Bellingham were consistently above 150 into Sunday evening, a level of smoke that is deemed dangerous for sensitive groups. A “good” AQI is between zero and 50. The Environmental Protection Agency reports people with heart disease, lung diseases and diabetes, pregnant women, the elderly, infants, children and teenagers can all be considered “sensitive” to wildfire smoke.  

AQI assessments in the foothills of Whatcom County were even higher than Bellingham, with air quality in Maple Falls staying at or above 175 AQI all of Sunday, with spikes from multiple sensors reaching well above 200 AQI, according to Purple Air, a crowdsourced air quality monitoring system. 

The Western women were ready and waiting at Harrington Field in Bellingham, hoping for the wildfire smoke to clear. The 12:30 p.m. game against Colorado School of Mines was supposed to be the last non-conference matchup of the season for the 1-1-2 Vikings, but was canceled shortly before 1 p.m. 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, college athletics' governing body, has specific language regarding playing and practicing outdoors in poor air quality. The guidelines state that when the AQI reads over 150, “outdoor activities should be shortened, and exertion should be minimized by decreasing the intensity of activity. Sensitive athletes should be moved indoors.” 

While both teams waited in vain for nearly 30 minutes past the scheduled kickoff time, the AQI on Western’s campus sat well above the 150 AQI threshold, and the game was canceled.  

“As of now, the game will not be made up with Colorado School of Mines flying back to their campus in Golden, Colorado after the cancellation,” a statement from Western Athletics read. “The forecast showed improving air quality heading towards this evening, but travel plans for Colorado School of Mines did not allow for an evening start time.” 

Another highly anticipated event, the Mt. Baker Hill Climb, was forced to cancel in response to dangerous air quality on Sunday.  

Anna Rankin, event coordinator for Whatcom Events which took over the race in 2018, knew last week that air quality could be an issue for the bicyclists, but did not expect the smoke to reach such a dangerous level. Rankin and her team sent a newsletter on Friday alerting riders there would be a risk of smoke in the atmosphere during the race, but forecasts at the time predicted air quality to still be safe for the majority of bicyclists. 

The 22.4-mile, 4,462-foot ascent from Glacier to Artist Point in Deming has been a popular race for bicyclists across the Pacific Northwest. The race shuts down Highway 542 to allow safe conditions for riders, a feature the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) does not give out often.  

Rankin said WSDOT only allows Highway 542 to be closed twice a year, and never allows a closure during peak camping season between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Those tight restrictions make for a narrow window to hold the bicycle race. Too early in the year and Whatcom Events can’t guarantee a car-free, closed course, and too late in the year could lead to rainy conditions and slick roads, Rankin said. 

“It’s really heartbreaking,” Rankin said. “Everyone’s been completely understanding, and everyone thinks we made the best decision. I would never do anything that put the health of our racers and volunteers at risk for profit. That’s just not who we are.” 

Rankin and a Whatcom Events employee set up camp at Heather Meadows, a campsite adjacent to the Artist Point finish line, and woke up at 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning to confirm their worst fears. The air quality index early in the morning read nearly 175 AQI, Rankin said, a category deemed hazardous for anyone, especially those committed to intense exercise.  

“We went outside and there was a little bit of ash falling on our car and we could definitely feel it in our lungs,” Rankin said. “We made the decision right away.” 

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