WENATCHEE, Wash. — Widespread unhealthy air from Washington and British Columbia wildfires is hampering apple and pear harvest in Central Washington.
Air quality was rated as “hazardous” Monday in Wenatchee, Chelan, Spokane and Inchelium by Washington Smoke Information, a website sponsored by local, state and federal agencies.
One step better from hazardous was “very unhealthy” for Twisp, Quincy, Leavenworth and other towns. Better yet at “unhealthy” were Omak, Ellensburg, Yakima, Moses Lake, Ritzville and Kennewick.
The agencies warned people to stay inside in areas of less than 1 mile visibility and to minimize outdoor activity at visibility of less than 3 miles. The agencies predicted no significant relief until Thursday, Aug. 23.
Smoke lowers temperatures and prevents sunburn to tree fruit but also can delay fruit maturity and harvest.
“Some pickers are working six or four hours instead of eight and some aren’t coming to work at all. It’s really bad,” Gabriel Canchola, a foreman at Piepel Orchards in East Wenatchee, said of Gala apple harvest in the smoke.
“It definitely is uncomfortable for those outside for long and makes outdoor labor more difficult,” said Sean Gilbert, co-owner of Gilbert Orchards in Yakima.
“We haven’t seen any ill effects from it but it’s too early to tell,” he said. “We need to get apples picked but are also conscious of people’s well-being.”
Gilbert was giving his Gala pickers the option of working fewer hours.
The growing season began with “awesome, phenomenal temperatures in May and June” and despite difficult weather the last two weeks, fruit is maturing nicely, he said.
“How long it lasts in storage we will see,” he said, adding he doesn’t know if smoke affects storability.
Jeff LaPorte, director of field services at Chelan Fruit Cooperative, said smoke is slowing workers, some are using masks and growers are leaving it up to workers to determine their hours in picking Gala apples and Bartlett pears.
“Harvest is a push so there’s not much leeway,” he said.
LaPorte and Gilbert both said the weekend and Monday were the worst smoke yet of the past week. They were hopeful of clearing that was forecast for Thursday.
Wildfire smoke is absorbed quickly by wine grapes and can remain long after the smoke has cleared, University of British Columbia researchers said earlier this year. It can lead to smoky-flavored wine even though grapes taste normal, they said.
The smoke is being generated by a half-dozen fires in Washington. The largest are:
• The Cougar Creek Fire, ignited by a July 28 lightning strike 20 miles northwest of Entiat, had grown to 37,775 acres as of Aug. 19 and is just 35 percent contained with an estimated containment date of Sept. 15. There are 967 personnel involved in fighting the fire.
• To the north, the Crescent Mountain Fire is at the headwaters of the Twisp River Valley, 21 miles from Twisp. It began July 29 from lightning, is estimated at 23,764 acres with 34 percent containment and full containment estimated by Oct. 22. Personnel totals 454. Some residents were evacuated Aug. 17.
• Farther north yet, McLeod Fire, 8 miles north of Mazama, began Aug. 11 from lightning, is estimated at 13,451 acres with 5 percent containment and full containment expected by Oct. 1. Personnel totals 408.