Hazardous smoke blankets western Oregon, with potentially deadly consequences

By Erin Ross (OPB)
Sept. 10, 2020 1 p.m. Updated: Sept. 10, 2020 5:17 p.m.

And because it’s 2020, there’s a respiratory pandemic

In much of Oregon everything is red: a thick layer of smoke covers the sun, casting everything in an eerie, ruby light. Raging wildfires in the Cascades, Willamette Valley, Coast Range and Rogue Valley have blanketed the western part of the state with smoke, sending ash raining onto nearby communities and filling the air with dangerous particulates.

Even if someone is nowhere near the fires that have devastated homes, businesses and communities, some effects are difficult to escape. Ash has been falling at the coast, coating cars and plants and houses in sooty, grayish-white.

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The sky glows red as the Two Four Two Fire burns in the distance in this image taken overnight Sept. 7-8, 2020 outside Chiloquin, Ore.

The sky glows red as the Two Four Two Fire burns in the distance in this image taken overnight Sept. 7-8, 2020 outside Chiloquin, Ore.

Evan Wright/Fremont-Winema National Forest /

“We can’t really go outside,” said Lillian Curanzy, who works at the Newport Public Library. “The smoke is really bad, the ash is horrible, and the particulates just get in your eyes and your throat.”

Curanzy left a window open in her home Monday night, when the skies were still clear. When she woke up Tuesday morning, her laptop and desk were covered in ash. It’s not unusual for coastal Newport to get some smoke during the summer, but ashfall is unheard of. Usually, it does little more than make the coast smell like campfire and make the sunsets extra-pink.

But smoke brings more than just red air. It also poses a serious health hazard. Research has shown that ambulance calls for respiratory issues increase in as little as an hour, once smoke appears in the area. The longer the smoke lingers and the thicker it is, the worse the health impacts are.

Jeffrey Pierce is an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University. His research has shown that increasingly common fires across the US have led to more hospitalizations, and that as the planet warms, future fires will be larger and bring an even larger risk.

It’s easy to track the impact on asthma, for example, “We see more emergency visits, doctor visits, asthma refills, things like that,” Pierce said. And that’s even with low levels of smoke.

Air quality is measured by something called an AQI, or Air Quality Index. The number given represents the quantity of PM 2.5 particles (particles that are 2.5 micrometers, so extremely tiny) for a given amount of air over a given amount of time. The higher the number, the higher the density of PM 2.5 in the air. Those tiny particles are particularly good at getting deep into our lungs. They can come from pollution, but they can also come from fires.

An AQI of less than 100 is considered “healthy.” Over 100, you start to see an increase in asthma-related hospital visits, like Pierce talked about, particularly in people who have predispositions or sensitive respiratory systems. When AQIs get over about 151, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that members of the general public, even those without pre-existing conditions, will start to feel the effects.

Anything over 301 is considered “hazardous”, the highest category of pollution the EPA recognizes. They advise that no one go outside when the AQI is over 300. Past 500 is considered to be “beyond the index.” Literally: it’s off the charts.

In places like Newport, the AQI is well over 500. And Curanzy says the smoke was worse on Tuesday. She’s worried about the homeless and transient populations in the area, who don’t have anywhere to go.

“A lot of them come spend time in the library” when things get smoky, Curanzy explained. But with COVID-19 spreading, the library isn’t an option.

When smoke levels are hazardous, health risks become much more severe. A severe respiratory illness called COPD, which causes your lungs to fill with fluid, becomes more common. Health risks can include respiratory problems, but lungs also contain a lot of blood vessels, and anything that gets into your blood eventually reaches your heart.

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It’s hard to tell whether wildfire smoke has an impact on heart health, Pierce said. “Heart attacks are so rare anyways.”

Combined with how uncommon severe smoke events are, it can be hard to get enough data to see if the two are linked. But in places with constant manmade pollution, the links between PM 2.5 exposure and cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and clots are well documented.

In most of Western Oregon, the AQI is high enough that everyone should take steps to limit their exposure, and that means staying indoors.

In Eugene, Rachel Kerns has been indoors with her children — ages 1 and 4 — for the last two days. Her 4-year-old daughter has a history of lung conditions, and their family doesn’t have central air conditioning, which would remove some particles from the air. So they taped up the windows to seal everything off, as tight as they could.

The air inside the house might be clean, but that doesn’t make it easy. “Oh, the 4-year-old is definitely going stir crazy. But we have a hallway,” Kerns said via Zoom, gesturing off-screen to make it clear that her daughter frequently flies down the hall to burn off energy.

It’s hard to explain to a child why they can’t go outside — or even what smoke is, and why it’s happening. “My daughter came into the living room Tuesday morning, and asked if it was daytime,” said Kerns.

The smoke had blocked out the sun, making everything red, dark, and eerie — like the pre-dawn light through a red piece of plastic. “We told her it was daytime. She looked skeptical,” Kerns laughed.

Even in Portland, where the skies were clear for much of the morning, the AQI was still at moderate levels: high enough for healthy residents to start experiencing the impacts, and for those with medical complications to possibly have severe health complications.

The impacts of long-term or lifetime smoke exposure are less well known. Pierce explained that when researchers talk about the health complications of wildfire smoke, they’re usually talking about the ‘acute impacts,’ or what happens immediately.

But while longer-term impacts aren’t as well documented, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Sometimes, smoke events like this one can contribute to research — Pierce published a paper that found that inhaler use in Oregon’s Rogue Valley dramatically increased during the 2013 fire season.

Pierce advised that people with preexisting conditions stay indoors when there’s smoke in the air. And he also advises that people without preexisting conditions stay indoors, too, particularly this year.

“There’s that aspect that people who are sick with COVID, but maybe not sick enough to notice or go to the hospital. But then when you add smoke on top of it, it could kick them into an extra-bad respiratory response,” Pierce said. Some of the conditions caused by wildfires, like COPD, can also be caused by COVID-19.

He said to pay attention to your body when you go outside. If your throat starts to tickle, or your eyes start to water, turn around and go back. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded or it gets hard to breathe, go back.

“There is one good thing about the pandemic, though,” Pierce said. “Everyone has masks.”

Cloth face masks and surgical masks will do very little to stop smoke, Pierce said. The particles are so small and tiny that they get around the gaps in the sides of those masks when you breathe. But thicker masks like N95s, K95s and P95s can help with smoke. So can masks that have a metal band to help fit them close to your face, or those that take replaceable filters.

Ultimately, even a cloth mask “is better than nothing.” Just don’t assume you’re protected.

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