Portland Has the Worst Air Quality in the World Thanks to the West Coast Fires

Anything over 300 on the Air Quality Index is considered "actively hazardous." Portland's at 455.
September 15, 2020, 1:30pm
AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

The Pacific Northwest is the worst place on Earth to breathe air right now, after wildfires in the region have blanketed the city in smoky, polluted air.

Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle are the worst three cities for air quality as of Tuesday morning, according to air quality aggregator IQAir. Portland is particularly awful right now; IQAir gives Portland an AQI (air quality index) of 365, while AirNow.gov—a government-run website—says Portland’s AQI is 455. The scale goes from 0 to 500, and anything above 300 is considered actively hazardous.

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Seattle and Vancouver, meanwhile, are respectively #2 and #3 on the list, with AQIs of 161 and 158, which indicate an “unhealthy” quality of air. As of Tuesday morning, Los Angeles is #5 and San Francisco is #12, as wildfires have ravaged areas in both the northern and southern parts of California.

More than 900,000 acres in Oregon have been burned and at least 10 people across the state have died as a result of the wildfires. To the southeast of Portland, there are three major fires in the same general area: the Beechie Creek Fire, the Beachie Creek Fire, and the Riverside Fire.

The Riverside Fire, closest to Portland, has burned almost 135,000 acres so far and is 0 percent contained, with nearly 500 personnel working to combat it, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente warned Portland residents about the danger of even going outside on Sunday. “Residents are strongly encouraged to monitor local air quality, stay inside, and take precautions until conditions improve,” the company tweeted.

The poor air quality is particularly hazardous for immunocompromised people and those who have breathing problems. Roughly 10% of emergency room visits in Oregon are for asthma-like symptoms, according to the Oregon Health Authority. People with heart and lung disease, older people, and children are particularly at risk, the agency’s website says.

"Everyone can have health effects in this smoke, and it's especially dangerous for our most vulnerable populations," Clackamas County public health officer Dr. Sarah Present told KPTV.

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Dr. Joshua Filner, a pulmonologist for Kaiser Permanente, said that even healthy people can feel the effects of being outside for too long when the air quality is this bad.

“Here we're in the 400-500 ranges. That's when we expect to see normal people starting to have some of those same problems: chest pain, chest tightness, dizziness, just feeling fatigued, all those sorts of symptoms,” Filner told KGW8 on Sunday. “We would expect most people who are outside for any length of time to feel kind of bad.”

The Multnomah County government compared the health hazards of being outside over the weekend to smoking 15 cigarettes.

Conditions aren’t expected to improve substantially until later this week or the weekend at the earliest, according to the National Weather Service’s Portland office. The agency extended an air quality advisory for Portland until noon Thursday, but the last several days have broken experts’ confidence.

“We could see some slight improvements, but realistically we’re not expecting enough that would really improve air quality drastically,” NWS Portland’s Rebecca Meussle told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “In the last couple days, a lot of our forecasts have been burned by the smoke.”

Cover: A view of downtown Portland from the East Bank Esplanade is seen on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. The entire Portland metropolitan region remains under a thick blanket of smog from wildfires that are burning around the state and residents are being advised to remain indoors due to hazardous air quality. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)