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McFeely: Eastern Washington hoping for winds of change

Thursday-afternoon haze from regional forest fire smoke clouds the sun setting over Eastern Washington's Roos Field -- site of Saturday's college football game against North Dakota State. Photo by Mike McFeely / The Forum

Cheney, Wash. - The fine young man at the Dollar rental car counter in the Spokane International Airport greeted customers thusly on Thursday: "Welcome to smoky Spokane."

One of his customers who had just arrived from the crisp, clean fall air of Fargo decided to respond with a sympathetic comeback.

"I suppose all you people feel like you're smoking about three packs a day with the air like this, eh?" he said.

"Three packs a day?" the Dollar counter man replied incredulously. "More like five packs a day. This is killing me. The wind better change directions soon."

That seems to be what everybody in the Inland Northwest is waiting for, a change in the wind. With rare northerly winds blowing smoke from Canadian wildfires into Washington, there is a heavy gray-brown pall laying heavy over the Spokane area that's been here since early in the week. The smoke is thick enough to block the sun, making even the midday hours seem little brighter than a gloaming dusk. It is thick, and breathing the air out here gives the sensation of being in a small room heated by a wood-burning stove. The air smells like burned wood and is dry, parching the mouth and the back of the throat quickly.

It is in this atmosphere we await an important football game for North Dakota State. The Bison are set to arrive Friday and are scheduled to play the Eastern Washington Eagles in a much-anticipated Football Championship Subdivison game on Saturday.

The powers-that-be at Eastern Washington, like the rental car company employee, are hoping the wind starts blowing firmly from a different direction before Saturday's kickoff, scheduled for 3 p.m. Fargo time. It was supposed to happen later Thursday or early Friday, a switch that would bring winds above 20 miles per hour from the prevailing southwest. If that happens, the smoke should clear quickly.

"We continue to monitor the smoke situation literally hourly," Eastern Washington athletic director Bill Chaves wrote on Twitter Wednesday. "But unless we announce otherwise our games this weekend are as planned!"

He wrote Thursday: "Meteorologists still predicting that winds/weather will adjust later today/tonight & that should help our situation tremendously!"

In the meantime, the Eagles were in a holding pattern. They practiced outside only one day this week, Wednesday, when they bused to an undisclosed location with better air quality for a practice in pads. Otherwise they've been in the tiny on-campus fieldhouse, not much bigger than a couple of indoor tennis courts, for practice.

"Obviously it doesn't simulate what it's like to have hash marks, goalposts, the width of the field and all that stuff," Eastern head coach Aaron Best said. "But it's the best we could do. We're kind of in a standstill mode, a holding mode."

The red artificial turf of Roos Field was empty again Thursday afternoon, littered with a few tackling dummies and blocking sleds, as players walked from the parking lot into the fieldhouse. It's far from ideal for the Eagles, who struggled in their season opener against Texas Tech in a 56-10 loss and now have to bounce back against the powerful Bison, the second-ranked team in FCS.

Football coaches are mostly known to be freakish about routines and keeping everything the same week-to-week once the season starts. But Best, in his first year after replacing the ultra-successful Beau Baldwin, is rolling with the odd situation.

"Sometimes routines are really, really good and sometimes they can be domineering," he said. "If something doesn't go according to routine, are you going to pull your hair out or are you going to adjust? It's much like a game. Not everything is going to go your way, so how are you going to react?"

The air quality in Cheney late Thursday afternoon was measured at 275 by the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency. That is classified as "very unhealthy." Anything above 300 is "hazardous." The index will have to drop to about 200 before the air is deemed healthy enough to play in.

And if that doesn't happen? It doesn't seem Eastern Washington has a plan, at least not one they are willing to share publicly. The school is banking on the winds changing and blowing.

The poor quality of the air the past several days is even making an impression on the natives.

"I've lived in Washington state my whole life and this is about as bad as I've seen it," Eastern Washington junior linebacker Kurt Calhoun said. "It's getting better every day, but a couple of days ago I walked outside and couldn't even take a deep breath. It was that smoky."

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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