‘Moderate’ smoke still poses risks, affects teams

Smoke clogs Cow Valley Tuesday afternoon. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

VALE – Malheur County has avoided the worst of the smoky conditions that have made life miserable across western states from wild fires this summer.

The county has stayed within the “moderate” range of the Air Quality Index used by the federal Environmental Protection Agency most of fire season. People who are “usually sensitive” to air pollution may experience health concerns within that range.

That’s compared to southern Oregon, which has been within the “unhealthy” range of the index for weeks. “Everyone may experience health effects” within that range, according to the index. Areas of southern Oregon have hit the “very unhealthy” range several times in recent weeks.

Last week, northern Malheur County reached the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” range, however.

The number of people coming into Saint Alphonsus Medical Center urgent care with coughing, wheezing, and allergy-like symptoms has been unusually high in recent months, according to Dr. Michael Hoilien at the Saint Alphonsus Fruitland Health Plaza.

“Patients who suffer from asthma and other lung disease are having to use their rescue inhalers more frequently,” Hoilien said. “They are having to use their rescue inhalers as much as every one to two hours.”

Physicians advise people to use only smoke-approved masks if they know they’re going to be outside for extended periods. Masks that are not smoke-approved can be more harmful because they can trap particles inside.

“Recently it’s been pretty bad in Ontario because of those fires in the Medford area,” according to Dave Fenstemacher, emergency preparedness coordinator with the Malheur County Health Department.

Fenstemacher recommends that all people, not just people with respiratory ailments, pay attention to air quality indexes and spend as little time outdoors when air reaches the unhealthy for sensitive groups range.

“When you’re breathing the air, you’re getting more than just the smoke,” Fenstemacher said.

“You’re also getting the smaller particles from the re that will settle down into your lungs and can cause respiratory problems.”

He said people who like to exercise outside should wait until the air quality improves. Coughing, runny nose, trouble breathing normally, fatigue, and an elevated heart rate can be signs that someone has spent too much time breathing smoky air, Fenstemacher said.

He was also concerned with high school football practices starting up outside.

“They’re working hard and breathing that air and it’s just not good for them,” he said.

The Ontario High School football team moved practice into the gym Wednesday, according to Athletic Director Manny Alvarado.

“I usually check the air quality indexes an hour before practice starts,” Alvarado said.

The Oregon School Activities Association prohibits teams from practicing outside when air quality is in the unhealthy for sensitive groups range.

“If we are practicing outside, coaches know to monitor kids with asthma throughout practice,” Alvarado said.

Malheur County has had fewer than average fires this year, according to Al Crouch, fire mitigation and education specialist with the Vale District Bureau of Land Management.

He said rangeland fires produce less smoke than forest fires, which contributes to the comparatively good smoke conditions in the county.

Crouch was cautiously optimistic talking about recent reports that fire crews have increased containment of some of the largest fires in the west.

He says this is the peak of fire season and conditions could take a turn for the worse at any moment.

“Don’t count your chickens yet, we still have a long way to go,” Crouch said.

Reporter Max Egener: [email protected] or 541-473-3377. Twitter: @maxegener.