When wildfires blew up along the Santiam and McKenzie river canyons, Peter Brewer was up at dawn, studying satellite imagery that showed a thick wall of smoke across much of western and southern Oregon. Brewer, a wildfire smoke response coordinator, knew bad news when he saw it.
“You know what’s coming,” says Brewer, who works in the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Bend office. “You know we’re going to get hit in a big way.”
Oregon has officially entered fire season, and it already is going down as one of the worst and most tragic on record. At last count, 50 fires, more than 500 square miles burned, sending huge plumes of smoke wherever the wind blows. This week, Eugene and Salem caught the brunt of it, with mid-day skies darkened and emitting an eerie red glow.
What makes for dramatic news photography, however, is bad for public health. DEQ’s system of air monitors showed some of the worst air since the agency began measuring, hovering in the purple “hazardous” category in at least nine communities. It is rare for air quality to dip down into the red “unhealthy” level. Smoke produces fine particulates that pose a health risk when breathed into the lungs.
DEQ’s role when wildfires burn is to let the public know about the quality of the air and what steps to take if it starts to head into the unhealthy range. The agency depends on its ever-growing network of air monitors along with a host of other government, tribal and health organizations to accurately predict where the smoke is going to be and how it affects air quality.
Before the devastating 2012 Pole Creek Fire near Sisters, there was little coordination among state agencies when a fire broke out. The dense smoke from that fire led to calls for more coordination, which led to a multi-agency effort to track smoke and provide advisories.
Since then, the effort has grown to include the Oregon Department of Forestry, the National Weather Service, the Oregon Health Authority, local county health offices, tribes and more. During the most recent collaborative call, more than 90 people were on the line.
During the call, which is led by DEQ, forestry officials described the fires and fire patterns, weather forecasters showed wind directions and strength and the determination was made to declare an air quality advisory for all regions of Oregon and Southwest Washington due to fires in Oregon, Washington and California. “And it’s going to be put to use as never before,” he says. “This is going to be historically one of the worst fire seasons Oregon has had.”
–Harry Esteve, communications manager
Read Knowing the colors of the air quality index to learn about DEQ’s AQI.