By BRIAN WALKER
COEUR d'ALENE — Smoke from the region's wildfires on Wednesday degraded air quality in some parts of North Idaho to the "unhealthy" level for the first time this summer.
However, winds and cooler temperatures expected overnight into today were predicted to provide relief on the brink of Labor Day weekend, said Ralph Paul, airshed coordinator for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality in Coeur d'Alene.
Air quality ranged from "moderate" to "unhealthy" across the Panhandle on Wednesday. The Coeur d'Alene area was moderate, as it is predicted to remain today, the Sandpoint area also was listed as moderate, while areas near the Canadian border were unhealthy.
"It's a combination of fires in northern California and Oregon and there's still fires in Washington and just across the border into Montana," Paul said.
"All those fires are contributing to the smoke in this high pressure system."
Under unhealthy conditions, everyone may begin to experience health effects and members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects. With moderate air quality, air quality is acceptable but a limited number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution may be affected.
"It's as bad as I've seen it in Coeur d'Alene this year," said Pamela Smith as she filled her gas tank Wednesday.
"I just hope it will clear up for the weekend as it's many people's last hurrah of summer. It's been a doozy of a summer with all the smoke and dry weather."
A Red Flag Warning was issued by the National Weather Service due to the low humidity, increased winds and the possibility of thunderstorms into last night and this morning.
"If there's lightning and high winds, you're going to have a fire take off," Paul said.
More than 100 lightning strikes were recorded in the Coeur d’Alene dispatch area in the past 24 hours, according to a press release from the U.S. Forest Service issued on Wednesday.
"It may take several days or longer to detect any new starts from these strikes," the press release states. "With the high temperatures, Labor Day weekend and hunting season, we are advising people to be especially cautious. There is still no moisture in the forecast and fire resources are limited as the wildfire season continues. Fire danger continues to be extreme across the Idaho Panhandle and any fires that start are likely to burn intensely."
Five new fires were detected across the Coeur d’Alene Dispatch Area in the past week. Three were human-caused and two were caused by lightning. Firefighters’ quick response contained the new starts and limited their spread.
The North Fork Hughes Fire in the Priest Lake Ranger District that has lasted most of the summer is at 1,990 acres. Fire growth has been primarily to the west, crossing onto the Colville National Forest. The fire also continues to back down the east flank near Hughes Meadows. Firefighters are monitoring 3.5 miles of sprinkler line along Hughes Fork and Jackson Creeks to minimize the effect of fire activity on sensitive wildlife habitat.
The Buck Fire in the St. Joe Ranger District is at 450 acres, having grown substantially over the past few days with the changing weather conditions. The fire is 25 percent contained.
Firefighter safety is the top priority on both fires as they are burning in steep, rugged terrain and heavy fuels.
Stage 2 fire restrictions on all state, federal and private forestland and rangeland throughout North Idaho remain. They prohibit:
• campfires and stove fires;
• smoking, except in an enclosed vehicle or building, designated recreation site or while stopped in an area at least 3 feet in diameter that is cleared of all flammable materials;
• operating motorized recreational vehicles off designated roads and trails; and
• using a chain saw or welder between 1 p.m. and 1 a.m.