Malick: Oregon’s future is smoky

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Cassidy Malick, Columnist

Editor’s Note: This column does not represent the opinion of The Daily Barometer. This column reflects the personal opinions of the writer.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, Oregon has been in a drought since 2003. Based on this information, I believe that we need to plan for more bad air quality in the future.

This year began with devastating wildfires in Australia, and has been unarguably turbulent since. Towards the end of the summer, the West Coast saw many large wildfires start. When Labor Day arrived early in September, the smoke rolled into the Willamette Valley and by the next day, the Air Quality Index indicated the air in Corvallis, Ore. was very unhealthy. 

We were lucky last year, when the fire season seemed to be short and relatively easy. The Air Quality Index (AQI) runs on a scale of 0 to 300, with five separate designations ranging from healthy to hazardous. The Environmental Protection Agency’s AQI Report states that the air quality was tested every day in 2019 and never exceeded an average of 85. The Oregon Department of Forestry published a PDF file in September of last year that shows a very gradual increase in the 10-year trend for the number of fires since 1911. This means that our long Oregon summers will continue to be smoky.

This smoke contributes to a feedback loop that continues to warm our planet and create risk of more wildfires. Professor John Bailey of the College of Forestry explains that many of Oregon’s forests are very dense and full laden, which puts them at risk every fire season.

According to David Wrathall of Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, populations that are low-income, elderly or have mobility impairments are especially vulnerable to wildfires. He believes that we, as Oregonians, can reduce risk by helping these communities evacuate and recover from wildfires.

This could mean packing a “go bag” with a change of clothes, medicine, money, water, flashlight and a first aid kit. It could also mean helping friends, neighbors and relatives clear trees and brush from around their homes if they live in rural areas. Bailey seconds this opinion and explains that our biggest tool in preventing large and intense fires is managing the fuel for these fires by carefully thinning forests and prescribed burning. Another tool, although a less popular one, is prescribed burns which prevent larger, more dangerous fires and help cut back on the smoke these wildfires would create.

In addition, Wrathall says that research is being done at OSU to help communities reduce risk of wildfires. If you are from a high-risk community and have interest in research tools for reducing risk, Wrathall heartily encourages you to reach out to him.

With AQI readings in our area having peaked in the 400s, it was a double-threat of the fires themselves and the smoke generated. Many of us were breathing hazardous air for about ten days. The CDC has a list of recommendations for protecting ourselves from hazardous air, including staying indoors, of course. But for many of us, that meant staying in our dorms or small apartments. Because we are still quarantining and avoiding public spaces due to COVID-19, this left many of us trapped indoors without the relief of a picnic on a lawn or a hike to break up the scenery.

What can we do, then, to protect ourselves—and our pets—from wildfire smoke? For those of us who have access to air conditioning, the CDC says to close the fresh-air intake and run our air conditioners.  If you, like myself, don’t have an air conditioner, however, there are still ways to clean up your air. DIY air purifiers were a very popular option. The CDC offers an instruction video on how to create one of these DIY air purifiers using a box fan and the air filters traditionally used in central air systems. 

If you can afford to buy an air purifier—there are some online for under $60—I would absolutely recommend getting one. A small air filter can make a big difference when it comes to combating wildfire smoke and pollen.

Other recommendations for maintaining healthy air quality indoors include avoiding vacuuming, sweeping, using aerosol sprays—like Lysol or Febreze—burning candles or incense, or frying or broiling foods. 

Breathing in smoke, especially smoke as thick and full of ash as what we had in Corvallis, can have immediate health effects. The CDC explains that breathing in wildfire smoke can cause headaches, coughing, chest pain, tiredness, stinging eyes, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses and trouble breathing.

When it came to masks, unless you had an N95 or a respirator, you were only really blocking out the ash. Wildfire smoke will still pass through a paper or cloth mask. These masks were still better than nothing, especially considering how much ash came down in Corvallis.

According to Bailey, the three worst years for wildfires since the 1970’s have been in the last four years here in Oregon. All in all, it’s likely to be smoky for many summers for years to come.

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