Wildfire smoke causing “hazardous” air quality in southwest Oregon

Wildfire smoke map, northwest U.S., 3:23 p.m. MDT, August 1, 2013
Wildfire smoke map, northwest U.S., 3:23 p.m. MDT, August 1, 2013 (click to enlarge)

Smoke from wildfires in southwest Oregon is being trapped by unstable air, causing the air quality index in some areas to reach “very unhealthy” and even “hazardous” levels, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. One of our loyal readers in the Rogue Valley wrote to tell us that the smoke has been dense enough to set off smoke alarms inside some buildings, and said:

Some folks are heading north to Eugene or Portland to escape it. I just walked to another building on our corporate campus and back, and my hair smells like smoke. Some fools are still out running in this, but others are starting to wear masks.

Some of the cities affected are Grants Pass, Medford, and Ashland. Much of the smoke is coming from the 28,000-acre Douglas Complex which began after 54 fires were ignited by lightning west of Medford on lands protected by the Douglas Forest Protective Association.

An air quality index (AQI) of less than 50 is considered “Good”. The next level up is “Moderate”, eventually working up to the highest level which is “Hazardous” beginning at an AQI of 300. We checked the levels at Medford at 3:20 p.m. Thursday and it was 229, “Very Unhealthy”. We understand that the smoke disperses more during the day, but settles into the low-lying areas at night, making conditions worse.

Medford air quality at 3:20 p.m. PDT, August 1, 2013
Medford, OR air quality at 3:20 p.m. PDT, August 1, 2013. (click to enlarge)

You can find the very handy map above at the web site of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The dots indicate the location of real-time air quality monitoring stations; the darker dots have the worst air quality. When you’re there, click on them to see the details.

About masks for protection from smoke — disposable dust masks or bandannas over your nose will do NOTHING to protect you from the EXTREMELY TINY smoke particles that are so small that if you dropped one from near the ceiling in a room with calm air, it would take eight hours for the particle to fall to the floor. You need a particular kind of respirator if you really want protection. Here is an excerpt from the Mail Tribune on the subject:

People who must be outside should avoid physical exertion and wear a particulate respirator if possible, [Jackson Baures, Jackson County public health division manager] said. Masks that help filter out the tiny particulates have the acronym “NIOSH” — National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — printed on it, along with “N95” or “P100,” he said. Wearers should make sure the respirator fits properly and does not leak around the sides. Dust masks that are not NIOSH-certified may not protect wearers from fine particulate matter, even if they are worn properly, he said.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “Wildfire smoke causing “hazardous” air quality in southwest Oregon”

  1. Makes you wonder how we wildland fire folks that work in the smoke (hotline, burnouts, etc) for 12-16 hours a day manage…? It’s unpleasant at times, sure, but doable. Are our lungs just shot to crap, and we don’t realize it?

    1. FYI, I worked for 10 seasons in Southern Oregon on the Rogue River-Siskiyou NF, and we definitely ate a LOT of smoke!


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