© 2023 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Wildfire season in southern Oregon and far-northern California is starting earlier, lasting longer and putting more smoke into the air than ever before. Rural economies based on tourism and outdoor recreation are seeing losses mount, year after year, as visitors cancel vacations to smoke-afflicted areas. Now, locals are facing the prospect of a "new normal" that threatens the livability of their communities.

People Seek 'Designer Masks' After Weeks of Smoky Days

Dozens of wildfires are filling the West Coast skies with thick smoke. In Southern Oregon, unhealthy air has forced people to wear smoke-filtering masks almost every day for more than a month. It has become part of the norm.

But in recent weeks, people have gotten tired of wearing the plain white paper masks every day. Instead, they’re investing in nicer ones made of fabric, and some even have artsy designs.

Noa Traylor of Weed, California, found his mask online. It’s a black fabric mask with a white decal of a zipper.

“It’s super really way smoky right now,” he said. “I skate to work, so I decided to find a couple of masks. I’m really into fashion, so I decided to get a couple of these, and I really like this one.”

The mask Traylor bought online has the N95 rating, which means it filters 95 percent of the super small particles that can cause lung problems. It also fits his style. This particular design reminded him of an anime character.

“It’s called Tokyo Ghoul,” Traylor said. “This guy has a mask and it like low-key resembles this one. I thought it was tight, so I copped it.”

Some people just want a mask that is more comfortable. Like Eileen Weinberg, of Ashland, who wanted something that was easy to put on and take off. In addition to an N95 filter, her cloth mask has an attractive plaid design.

“People say, ‘Oh designer mask!’ And I feel a little shy,” she said. “I didn't mean to get a designer one.”

Ashland resident Mary Kyman said she specifically sought out her “designer mask.” Her mask is purple and gray, and has skulls on it.

“If you have to wear this all the time, why not look good?” she said. “Once a fashionista, always a fashionista.”

People are finding these artsy masks online. Meanwhile, local hardware stores keep more heavy duty masks in stock. The Ashland ACE Hardware store carries a mask that filters 99.9 percent of smoke particulates.

“It has a replaceable filter,” employee Josh Holub said. “We carry them in neon green. Or a black filter. They do go rather quickly and people are seeking them now.”

For some people, buying these stronger masks is a necessity. Talent resident Danae Wilkin has to wear two different kinds of masks: a heavy duty one when she’s outside, and a lighter mask when she’s indoors.

“Seems like [the smoke season] is going to go on forever,” she said. “I get headaches. Nausea. I’m coughing a lot. I basically just stay indoors.”

Wilkin says she has sensitive lungs. The smoke also bothered her last summer, when it covered the Rogue Valley for several weeks. People like her are staying indoors. They’re cancelling outdoor events. They’re going somewhere that isn’t smoky. And while local businesses might have taken a hit from the smoke, there’s at least one marketing opportunity on the horizon: selling more effective — and attractive — face masks.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.