Most masks won't protect against wildfire smoke, Boise pulmonologist says
Karen James, a geneticist who lives in Maine, is meeting two West Coast friends in Idaho to view the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21. She’s keeping a close eye on weather and smoke conditions out West, as wildfire season peaks.
When Idahoans — and thousands of visitors from out of state — look to the sky for the much-hyped eclipse in two weeks, there could be a whole lot of gray.
“It’s going to be a great trip, no matter what,” said James, who is looking forward to hiking and camping with her friends.
Wildfire smoke from around the Northwest reduced visibility in Boise to less than 2 miles over the weekend. The winds aloft are currently too weak to push the smoke out of the Treasure Valley, and forecasters have no idea if that will change by Aug. 21.
“It’s simply too far out,” said Les Colin, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service in Boise.
Next week, meteorologists will have a much better idea of how things might play out, he said. Colin noted that there are a number of variables: Firefighters could get a handle on existing fires but new fires could fill the air with smoke, and wind patterns could shift.
On Tuesday night, meteorologist Dave Groenert saw a glimmer of hope for increased winds in the forecast models.
“Late this weekend into early next week, at least two of the models show a storm system approaching the Pacific Northwest — so that would increase the winds,” Groenert said. “That would give us some hope.”
Still, many are concerned about whether they’ll have a good view of the eclipse.
James is meeting her friends — one from Seattle, the other from Davis, Calif. — in Stanley.
She’s planning to arrive in Idaho five days before the eclipse. After stocking up at Trader Joe’s and REI in Boise, she’ll head north to secure a camping spot. Her group will be ready to make an adjustment in where they camp to ensure they get the best view of the eclipse possible.
“Even if fires aren’t bad, there could be clouds,” James said in a phone interview Monday from Bar Harbor, Maine. “If we need to make a last-minute decision to go farther west, or more likely farther east, we can go find another camp site that’s less obscured or has a better forecast.”
For those who can’t get out from under clouds or smoke, the eclipse will still be a memorable experience, James said.
“It’s not like you won’t see anything,” she said. “It will get dark. That will be incredible in the middle of the day.”
If you’re in a location that has obscured visibility of the eclipse, don’t assume that it’s safe to look at the sun without protective glasses.
“The same particulate matter that blocks visible radiation may not block the same amount of ultraviolet or infrared radiation, and that is what damages your eyes,” Forbes magazine reported in a Monday story about how to plan for eclipse viewing during wildfire season.
Oregonians are also concerned about the smoke impacting their view.
The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality put out an orange alert warning for the Treasure Valley on Monday. That means conditions are unhealthy for sensitive groups, including children, the elderly and those who have heart or lung diseases. Everyone is advised to limit physical exertion outside.
IDEQ has a website where the public can get a look at air quality conditions around the state in real time. There were many places around Idaho on Monday that have pollution levels that are in the red category, or unhealthy for all groups.
In 2015, when conditions were poor in Boise, a local pulmonologist told the Statesman that most medical masks won’t protect your lungs against wildfire smoke.