A fan enters the Seattle Mariners ballpark wearing a mask to help protect against smoky skies before a baseball game in Seattle in August 2018. Elaine Thompson/AP

Five public buildings will get filtration systems to keep the air inside clean on days when smoke affects the city, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last week.

At times over the past two summers, Seattle experienced some of the worst air quality in the world. With wildfires breaking out in British Columbia, Oregon, and California, the city was hit by smoke from nearly every direction. It caused increased air pollution for 24 days, and on a few occasions, the air was so bad it was considered “unhealthy for all.”

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and her colleagues are grappling with the possibility that this could be a “new normal” for Seattle’s summers. On June 19, Durkan announced plans to create public clean-air shelters that residents can visit on smoky days in the city’s future.

The pilot program will outfit five public buildings with high-tech filtration systems that screen out smoke and toxins. The buildings will also be equipped with detection systems to keep tabs on how clean the indoor and outdoor air is, and air doors at entrances to push dirty air away. The installations are expected to be completed by late July.

The sites in the pilot were selected because they have air-conditioning and are popular spots for locals. Officials said they also chose buildings in areas with a concentration of residents who likely can’t afford filtration systems for their own homes. For example, one of the community centers they chose is in the International District, where there are many senior citizens living on fixed incomes.

Three of the air-quality shelters will be at Seattle Center, with another in the International District and the fifth in Rainier Beach. (Map tiles by Stamen Design, under CC BY 3.0. Data by OpenStreetMap, under ODbL. David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

At this point, the city says the buildings will not generally be open for extended hours or serve as overnight shelters. In the past, community centers in Seattle have occasionally been used as emergency homeless shelters in freezing weather and other harsh conditions. “Moving forward, we will continue to explore this on a case-by-case basis,” said Anthony Derrick, a digital associate for the mayor, in an email to CityLab. Derrick said the building upgrades “[give] us additional opportunities to protect and provide for our most vulnerable residents.”

This year, Washington State has already faced more than 170 wildfires, which is considered high given how early in the season it is. In May, Governor Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency in nearly half of the state in response to poor water supply and predictions of warmer and drier weather. British Columbia also has higher-than-normal wildfire conditions.

“It’s a sad thing to say this, but if you love the outdoors, you might want to think about getting out when it’s safe, because we can’t tell you anymore that it’s always going to be safe,” said Craig Kenworthy, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, during the pilot-program announcement.

Across the United States, there has been an overall increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires. Last year, 8.7 million acres burned, which was 3 million more than a decade earlier, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a federal wildfire-tracking project.

Dan Jaffe, a professor of environmental chemistry and chair of the physical sciences division at the University of Washington, said one of the reasons for this increase is climate change.

“We know it’s getting warmer—there’s no doubt about that—and there’s a number of studies demonstrating that as it gets warmer, the likelihood of getting fires and uncontrollable fires increases,” said Jaffe, who, along with his students, will examine the effectiveness of two of Seattle’s new clean-air centers once they open.

Seattle is in a particularly precarious position when it comes to dealing with wildfire smoke, which can cause everything from eye irritation to headaches and coughing. The majority of homes in the city—known for its mild weather—don’t have air conditioning. And lately, temperatures have been on the rise, while smoky days have become more frequent. That means the standard advice to keep windows and doors closed when there’s bad air outside is not always going to be feasible, given the heat.

“The buildings in Seattle were built for the climate that we had, which is a climate where you can open the windows and where air circulation is a really important part of cooling down,” said Julia Reed, a senior policy advisor in the mayor’s office. “Now we’re realizing that because of human action, the climate has changed. We really want to make sure people can still utilize our public spaces, especially because so many homes in Seattle don’t have HVAC systems.”

Clean-air shelters can help Seattle residents cope with smoky air, but if air quality continues to worsen, five buildings won’t be enough to help everyone. Reed said the city is looking at the possibility of expanding the program to other buildings and is reaching out to private businesses as well. (So far, there’s no estimate of how many buildings could be part of the program in the future.)

Jesús Aguirre, Seattle’s parks and recreation superintendent, said officials are also looking at the possibility of using “air scrubbers,” or mobile filtration units. Although these would likely only be effective in individual rooms, they would be simple to set up. He said city staffers are testing them to see how effective they are.

But the city’s effort to tackle wildfire smoke will not stop with cleaning individual buildings or rooms, according to Mayor Durkan.

“We see more and more that climate change is affecting communities in ways that really go to our everyday life. This is one of those ways. … We have to decarbonize as a city,” she said.

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