Living in Smoke in Oregon

During the 2020 wildfire season, Oregon experienced the worst air quality in our history. Oregon Public Broadcasting went so far as to call it some of the worst air quality in the world. The office of Governor Kate Brown has recently released a report by the Department of Environmental Quality concerning air quality issues related to smoke from the 2020 wildfires in Oregon.   

The DEQ report is an index of trends Oregonians can expect from wildfires and the smoke they produce. Notably, the DEQ found that our fire seasons – which used to begin in late July and continue until early September – have recently been beginning in mid-July and lasting until early October. This adds a month and a half to the season. Additionally, where wildfire season once stayed primarily in Southern, Central, and Northeastern Oregon with contributing issues from Northern California, we have had large fires contributing to poor air quality from Washington and British Columbia of late. 

According to the DEQ document, “Wildfire smoke emits a wide variety of pollutants measured as particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), black carbon, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and metals.” Most concerning are particulates labeled PM2.5, as they are very small and can therefore easily be breathed in deeply and stand a higher probability of entering the bloodstream.  

The DEQ measures health risks through the Air Quality Index (AQI) using “PM2.5, ozone, PM10, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide data to calculate health indices.” Air quality is then presented to the public through warning levels of Good, Moderate, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (children, pregnant women, and people with medical issues), Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, and Hazardous.   

Samples are taken “using Federal Reference Method (FRM) filter samplers. Air passes through a filter for 24 hours starting at midnight and samples are collected daily, every three, or [every] six days depending on the location. The filter samplers are co-located with nephelometers that measure continuous, real-time light scattering due to particulate matter.”  

AQI is determined using standards set up using breakpoints by the Environmental Protection Agency. In the DEQ’s report, samples were examined from Bend, Klamath Falls, Medford, and Portland. There are 20 additional sites throughout the state where AQI reporting is done. In Corvallis, the AQI measures air quality at Circle Blvd 

 DEQ Findings of Note  

Using the AQI risks of Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, and Hazardous as a whole – let’s call it USG, as all of these risk levels are greater than or equal to the risk of Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups – and eliminating July 4 from the data, as fireworks may have skewed the results, the DEQ evaluated the 2020 summertime air quality from June 1 to October 20.   

The wildfire season in 2020 was shorter than the norm, although more intense. For September and October, concentrations of PM2.5 were higher than in the history of DEQ testing.  

The overall number of days in which air quality was USG had increased, and continues to do so. In the past five years and including 2020, Bend had 24 USG days, while it had only three USG days in the 27 years preceding that. Klamath Falls went from 20 USG days before 2015, to 37 USG days in the last five years. Medford went from 28 USG days in 27 years, to 59 USG days in the last five.   

According to the report released by the DEQ, “Before 2020, the Portland area had never experienced air quality measuring higher than ‘Unhealthy’ on the AQI. However, last year the area logged three ‘Very Unhealthy’ and five ‘Hazardous’ days.”  

Currently, the AQI for Corvallis is Good, with the possibility of it lowering to Moderate on Wednesday, August 18.  

Living in Smoke  

Living in smoke is becoming normal in Oregon. So prepare yourself and your family – especially if you have a family member who is part of the Sensitive Group.   

A few general rules for living in an area with smoke: Make sure you have about a week’s worth of any critical medications on hand. If you need a portable air cleaner, make sure it’s a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or an electro-static precipitator (ESP). If you’re advised to stay indoors, then stay indoors. And, of course, call your doctor if your condition gets worse.  

If you find yourself surrounded by smoke as you drive, turn on your air conditioning and recircle the air to minimize the amount of smoke coming into your vehicle.   

You can check the AQI for anywhere in Oregon at this website or with the free phone app called OregonAir.   

There is a blog which tracks smoke levels statewide. You can find it here  

Subscribe here to receive email alerts about air quality in your area.  

And lastly, read up on this information offered by the Oregon Health Authority regarding how to treat smoke-related health issues.  

By Sally K Lehman