Science & Environment

Oregon’s air is so hazardous it’s breaking records

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Sept. 15, 2020 11:36 p.m.

Wildfire smoke breaks records with off-the-chart numbers throughout Oregon and the smoke is expected to linger in the air through Thursday.

Smoke obscures the hills and buildings normally visible in downtown, Portland, Ore., Sept. 10, 2020.

Smoke obscures the hills and buildings normally visible in downtown, Portland, Ore., Sept. 10, 2020.

Claudia Meza / OPB

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Lane Regional Air Protection Agency released data from the past week that shows historical record-breaking air quality across the state. Oregon has been choked by some of the worst air quality in the world with such dense concentrations of tiny particles from wood smoke that it’s been considered unhealthy or even hazardous to breathe. And the new data shows it’s the worst ever recorded in Portland, Eugene, Bend, Medford and Klamath Falls. That’s based on an Air Quality Index that categorizes air quality as good, moderate, unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous.


DEQ’s Laura Gleim said the AQI monitors take hourly measurements and averages those numbers for the day. She said it is possible some cities or neighborhoods could have reached ratings well over 500 — beyond the AQI’s upper threshold for hazardous air — for a few hours during that day.

“Above 500 is off of that scale,” Gleim said. “It doesn’t mean the monitors can’t display higher than that, it just means the health categories haven’t been set up to go beyond that.”

Every DEQ-monitored city reached unhealthy or hazardous levels last week and the dense smoke is expected to remain throughout most of Oregon until at least Thursday.

Gleim said if rain does arrive it should help calm down fires and smoke, but it depends on what the weather forecasts this week.


“There is a little bit of clearing happening along the coast but again that could be temporary because of the shift in winds and directions we may still see smoke come in from California,” Gleim said.

DEQ and the Oregon Health Authority are co-hosting a Facebook Live conversation Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. and fielding questions about the bad air and strategies for coping.

Southern Oregon has been hit with heavy smoke in previous years but Gleim said the smoke hasn’t extended across the whole state the way it is now. Medford’s previous record was 319. The city’s new record is 325 set Saturday. Klamath Falls also set a record Saturday at 331.

Related: When will smoke clear out of Northwest skies? Not as soon as we’d all hoped

Other cities shattered their old “bad air” records Saturday. Bend’s new high, an off-the-charts rating above 500, was more than double its old record of 231. Portland’s 477 Saturday was three times the previous all-time high rating of 157 recorded in 2017. Eugene’s 457 far exceeded the previous record of 291.

“Labor Day morning things were kind of beautiful. We had clear skies, it was blue, the air quality was nice and good,” Lane Regional Air Protection Agency public affairs manager Travis Knudsen said. But by around 6 or 7 p.m. it had dropped to very unhealthy. The next morning it was considered hazardous.

This is the first time his agency has opted not to advise people to escape the bad air; that’s because the entire state has been engulfed by air that ranges in quality from unhealthy to hazardous air.

“Our recommendation to people is to stay home and limit their exposure outdoors as much as possible. Close all the windows, close all the doors, look for any cracks or leaks in your home that could be letting outdoor air in and close them up as much as possible,” Knudson said.

He also recommends getting an air purifier or creating your own if an HVAC system is not available in your home.

The National Weather Service in Portland tweeted on Tuesday that the lingering smoke over the Willamette Valley and the Columbia Gorge is currently coming northward from fires in California. Also, smoke conditions have significantly improved along the Oregon coast.