Though improving, air quality remains unhealthy

Smoke and haze blots out the sun in Cottage Grove as regional fires continue to burn.

Extreme fire events in the Pacific Northwest continue to impact the daily lives of those in the Willamette Valley and beyond. 

Darkened skies and air filled with particulate matter have forced much of the population indoors to wait out the smoke blanketing the region.

In just a week, more than a million acres of Oregon have burned, said Gov. Kate Brown in a press briefing, compared to the 500,000 acres which burn in a typical year. 

Across the western United States, at least 87 wildfires are still burning, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Oregon itself has so far lost or sustained substantial damage to several towns such as Detroit, Lyons, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix and Talent.

“We are absolutely in unprecedented times,” said Doug Grafe, Oregon Department of Forestry Chief of Fire Protection in a Sept. 10 press briefing.

Throughout last week, evacuation levels were changing by the hour as a result of the dynamic fire conditions. More than half a million Oregonians are under evacuation notice and more than 40,000 have evacuated.

The prospect of wet weather this week, however, has raised hopes that conditions will change favorably for regional firefighting efforts.

More locally, the Holiday Farm Fire east of Springfield has grown to 166,503 Acres with six percent containment as more than 700 personnel work to dig hard lines and create a perimeter.

Six South Lane County Fire and Rescue (SLCFR) personnel have been sent to help fight the fire.

All the while, smoke continues to waft through the valley, severely deteriorating air quality.

The Lane Regional Air Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index (AQI) indicates that numbers above 150 are considered unhealthy and an AQI above 200 is hazardous. Local AQI numbers have at various times held above 600, though numbers have been steadily dropping this week.

To the south, the Archie Creek Fire is burning east of Roseburg in the North Umpqua corridor on state, private and federal land. As of Wednesday (Sept. 16) morning, the fire had grown to encompass 125,489 Acres and was 20 percent contained as more than 700 personnel work to control it.

The towns of Sutherlin, Oakland, Rice Hill, Yoncalla and Drain were put under Level 1 “Be Ready” status last week. 

The fire has an estimated containment date of Sept. 30 and a Red Cross shelter has been established at the Douglas County Fairgrounds in the meantime.

Though outside SLCFR jurisdiction, SLCFR Division Chief Aaron Smith said the fire district is keeping close tabs on the situation.

“We are monitoring that Archie Creek Fire hourly,” he said in an interview on Monday. “Coupled with the changing weather conditions, the threat is very, very minimal now. We’re keeping an eye on it, but it’s not what it was Thursday (Sept. 10).”

Despite the low threat level, Smith encouraged people to practice preparedness outside of times of emergency, such as creating escape plans and making “defensible space” between one’s house and fuel sources.

“We recommend being cautious when using sprinkler systems,” he said. “Absolutely prepare by getting your sprinkler systems set and ready to go … and that’s great for a well, but it’s not recommended when it abuses the local municipalities water system. You’re actually taking that water away from firefighters who need the water to fight the fires.”

Smith said a Clackamas County fire district had to ask its populace to stop using sprinklers because overuse was hindering fire suppression efforts.

“The big thing is staying indoors. Staying out of the smoke. Not risking your lungs if you can,” he said. “Especially people who have respiratory compromises need to batten down the hatches, stay inside and keep air flow in your house.”

There have not been any major firefighting efforts locally, though a fire started in Creswell last week from the sun glare off someone’s window, Smith said. 

As the fire danger is extreme, several restrictions are in place including the use of chainsaws, ATVs, tractors or lawnmowers. Some of the many calls coming in to SLCFR, Smith said, have been neighbors concerned that such equipment was in use.

“Each call for service does tax our resources,” he said.

Though training has been completed for many CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) members in the area, they have yet to be deployed.

“Due to the virus, they’re kind of sidelined until we’re able to provide members with proper PPE (personal protection equipment),” said Smith. “They’re definitely willing, though.”

Smith said radio, TV, social media and door-to-door will be SLCFR’s main methods of communication and reminded people to turn on notifications on their phones if they want up-to-date information.

Meanwhile, local establishments are providing aid for evacuees and those seeking respite.

Parking space has been offered at the Masonic Lodge on Row River Road and the Bank Building downtown is providing its office space for those who need it.

Last week, Cottage Grove City Hall opened its foyer for up to five people at a time for air respite. The space is still available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and masks are required when in the building.

During Monday’s city council meeting, City Manager Richard Meyers addressed complaints from the community that other sites such as the Armory and Community Center were not opened to the public.

“We just can’t,” he said, citing the construction work being done in both buildings. “The air inside the Armory is much like the air outside and there’s no way of filtering that unless everybody huddled in the bathrooms, which are the only places that have the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system.”

The Community Center, too, is being remodeled and as sheetrock is being removed from the senior center, the air quality remains hazardous, Meyers said.

“So those two buildings are out of commission and couldn’t be used,” he said.

Though air quality has improved this week, emergency officials have issued the following recommendations for protecting health when smoke levels are high:

• Avoid outdoor activities and stay inside if possible. Keep windows and doors closed.

• Be aware of smoke in your area.

• Use high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. These can be portable filters or can be installed in indoor heating, ventilation, cooling and air purification systems. 

• Check with your local health department or a 211 list to see if they have community clean air shelters set up where people can get temporary relief from the smoke.

• If you have heart or lung disease or asthma, follow your healthcare provider’s advice.

• Consider leaving the area if smoke levels are hazardous and you have heart disease, asthma or other respiratory conditions. Otherwise, wait to be directed to evacuate. 

Pay attention to evacuation notices. If you choose to leave the area, remember to take face coverings and hand sanitizer with you to help protect yourself and others from COVID-19. 

Cloth, dust and surgical masks don’t protect from the harmful particles in smoke. N95 respirators that are tested to ensure proper fit and that are worn correctly may provide protection. Otherwise, they might just provide a false sense of security.

They are not available in children’s sizes and are not recommended for strenuous activities. N95 respirators are in limited supply due to COVID-19.

Additional information on wildfire smoke and COVID-19 can be found on the Centers for Disease Control webpage at

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