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caption: A hazy sun pokes through a thick layer of wildfire smoke above Darrington, WA on Wednesday, October 19, 2022. 

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A hazy sun pokes through a thick layer of wildfire smoke above Darrington, WA on Wednesday, October 19, 2022.
Credit: KUOW Photo/ Casey Martin

NW town breathing the world’s worst air

Western Washington currently has some of the world’s dirtiest air due to smoke from wildfires in the Cascade Mountains. Fires have been burning for weeks, but people living close to the fire line say these past few days have been the worst conditions so far this year.

On Wednesday afternoon, the sun could barely shine through the smoke covering the town of Darrington, northeast of Seattle. It looked like a dim, orange street lamp over a community that’s been breathing unhealthy levels of smoke for almost a month.

Jack White, who’s lived in Darrington for 40 years, headed to the library to return a DVD and get a break from the smoke.

One problem: the Darrington Library had closed early because the air quality was so bad.

“Normally they're somebody you can count on being open,” White said, peering through the locked doors of the library. “I was a little taken aback with it.”

caption: The Darrington Library closed early on Wednesday due to hazardous air conditions. The library had a basket of masks for people to take. Wednesday, October 19, 2022.
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The Darrington Library closed early on Wednesday due to hazardous air conditions. The library had a basket of masks for people to take. Wednesday, October 19, 2022.
Credit: KUOW Photo/ Casey Martin

The air quality in Darrington had deteriorated to hazardous levels, according to AirNow.gov, with an Air Quality Index (AQI) of over 400. The Seattle area’s AQI has been around 200-300, or very unhealthy levels, during these wildfires.

A world air quality tracker ranked Seattle’s air as some of the very worst on the planet on Wednesday, with the city in the top spot for multiple hours.

Around Darrington, beams of light from cars were suspended in the smoke as if it were a dense fog.

“It's been pretty bad all summer but the last week, week and a half has been pretty intense,” White said, “I can feel it when I normally don't. I'm blessed with health, but this is truly making an impact.”

Just a few minutes of being in Darrington makes your throat scratchy, nose run, and eyes water.

Only a few people were walking around and a lone cyclist wore a dusty N95 face mask.

White said he knew Wednesday would be especially bad when he woke up in the morning and couldn’t see the mountains that are right outside his front door.

“I'll step out of the house and I'll look in the direction of Whitehorse first,” he said, “just to see what the air quality is like. And if I can see the mountain, well then we have hope.”

Visibility was so poor, he could hardly see the grocery store down the street from the library, let alone the mountains.

White, and the rest of Washington, are hoping this weekend brings something this region is more accustomed to in late October: rain.

The National Weather Service in Seattle said rain is forecasted to return starting Thursday night.