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Regional Interests

Wildfire smoke chokes Central, Southern Oregon communities

Smoke rises from the Middle Fork Complex Fire in Central Oregon on Sept. 6, 2021.
Smoke rises from the Middle Fork Complex Fire in Central Oregon on Sept. 6, 2021.

Oregon communities east of the Cascades are getting hammered with wildfire smoke as several large fires burn in the mountains. La Pine, Bend and Redmond all experienced “very unhealthy” air Wednesday, with communities farther south experiencing air quality that was nearly as bad.

In total 15 Oregon counties are under an air quality advisory through at least Thursday afternoon, most in the south and central parts of the state.

The Bull, Middle Fork, Rough Patch and Devils Knob wildfire complexes have burned through an area of about 150,000 combined acres in the Cascades.

Deschutes County has been experiencing high levels of smoke for several weeks now.

“We’ve been seeing levels up to hazardous for multiple days in a row,” said county spokesperson Morgan Emerson. “It can be really draining.”

Smoke from wildfires, in particular tiny particulate pollution referred to as PM2.5, can exacerbate health problems, even more so than other sources of particulate pollution. It can heighten symptoms of chronic respiratory disease like asthma and cardiovascular disease. Health officials advise extra precautions, as well, for those who are very young, old or pregnant.

Deschutes County health officials have health advice posted for local residents, who are already experiencing the highest levels of COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began.

“None of us want to make ourselves more susceptible to this nasty infection,” said Deschutes County Health Services director George Conway in a video message posted online.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that wildfire smoke can “irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system, and make you more prone to lung infections,” like COVID-19. It also says those who are recovering from COVID-19 may be at higher risk for adverse health effects from smoke.

Also, when smoke levels started to tick up in August, it forced the county to change the way it responded to COVID-19.

“At that time we had some outdoor vaccination clinics. Since then we’ve moved all those to locations that are indoors, so we can keep those running,” Emerson said.

Wildfire seasons in the Western United States have been lengthening as one of the worst droughts in 1,200 years continues to buffet the region.

Research out of NASA this week suggests that Oregon is likely to see another 20-year drought — like the current one making wildfire seasons especially severe — before the end of the century, even if human-caused climate change is kept at what it calls modest levels. The analysis finds that keeping climate change in check will help reduce the chances of extreme single-year droughts that have posed heightened threats to ecosystems, agriculture and fire-prone communities.

Smoke conditions are expected to improve overall in Central Oregon over the next few days as winds push the smoke south and east. But the area around Klamath Falls is expected to get far worse. Cities along the Interstate 5 corridor in the Willamette Valley will largely be spared from the smoke for the next several days.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting