Last month’s smoky skies were the worst Joe Creager said he’s seen during his 21 years in the golf industry.
Smoke from recent wildfires caused the air quality index to spike into the hazardous range for several days, and the Department of Ecology urged people to stay indoors if possible, which meant businesses that rely on Mother Nature took a toll.
“With the smoke, it just wasn’t a good condition (to golf). Usually we have a couple hundred people each day, and we probably lost maybe 20 percent to 30 percent,” said Creager, Columbia Point Golf Course general manager. “The evening golf leagues were impacted, too. We lost probably 60 percent of those. People just couldn’t play.”
And it wasn’t just players who were affected. Columbia Point Golf Course is a parkland-style golf course with 35 employees, about half of whom work outside tending the greens.
“A lot of our staff members have been wearing masks,” he said.
John Lyle, air quality engineer for Benton Clean Air Agency, said when the air quality is unhealthy masks are preferred.
“They help filter out particulate matter. Standard surgical masks aren’t filtering it out. They need to be rated for smoke and dust,” Lyle said.
When the smoke was at its worst last month, air quality index monitoring sites across the state lit up in red.
According to the Benton Clean Air Agency, lungs filter more than 8,000 liters of air a day. Air toxins in the Tri-City region come primarily from diesel exhaust and smoke from wood burning. Breathing dirty air hurts the body by inflaming and destroying lung tissue and weakening the lungs’ defenses against contaminants and infections. And when the air quality index levels reach unhealthy conditions, children and the elderly are most vulnerable.
Sports programs and other events were canceled because the air quality index reached unhealthy levels during the week of Aug. 20.
Meredith Reed, director at Columbia Center mall, said they were grateful to provide a refuge for people who needed to burn off energy or wanted a way to exercise when the weather isn’t healthy.
“We have a really great mall walker program and average 200 people a week,” said Reed, who added that the program is part of the Kadlec Healthy Ages program, a free program focused on the concerns of the 50 and older population. “And when the weather (is bad) you’ll see that increase. More people are walking the mall earlier in the morning, stretching their legs and getting exercise.”
During the smoky days in August, Reed said the mall saw an increase in about 100 people walking before stores opened at 10 a.m. The mall opens its doors to people of all ages at 7:30 a.m., and there is no limit on the amount of time people can walk the corridors.
While mall traffic increased due to smoky weather, Horst Heating & Air Conditioning in Kennewick didn’t see a spike in business. Owner Steve Horst said his business is affected by temperatures, and the smoke seemed to keep the air cooler than predicted.
“The temperature, when it gets up to 103, it only feels like 98 because the smoke is keeping the heat out. So it’s been slower than normal, actually,” Horst said. “Air filters have been a little blacker, but it wasn’t so thick that it plugged everything up.”
Changing filters out more often when the air quality is bad can help improve health. Long-term exposure to poor air can lead to headaches, chest pains and watery eyes, Lyle said.
The Benton Clean Air Agency has an air quality monitor located on top of the Tri-Tech Skills Center building in Kennewick and the numbers are reported to the state Department of Ecology. When the air is particularly bad, Lyle suggests employees working outdoors find activities they can do inside, as well as doing less strenuous work for sensitive groups with respiratory issues.
But even indoor activities can be affected when the air is polluted. Researchers believe even modest levels of pollution impair performance through changes in respiratory, cardiovascular and cognitive functions. In a 2014 study, researchers concluded that labor productivity falls when air pollution rises, even indoors, as fine particulate matter can penetrate.
Josh Garza, head professional at Horn Rapids Golf Course in Richland, said now that the air quality is back to healthy levels, business picked back up.
“When it first started, we had a lot of cancellations. It’s definitely the worst I’ve seen,” Garza said. “We don’t have many trees out here, so it’s very visual. We couldn’t even see Rattlesnake Mountain.”
Columbia Point Golf Course also has seen an uptick in business as the weather cleared.
“People are itching to play,” Creager said.
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