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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.

Smoke and Fire Summit Starts A Conversation In Southern Oregon

Crater Lake, enshrouded in smoke from nearby wildfires in the summer of 2017.

Increasingly, wildfires and the smoke they cause are becoming the daily reality of summer in southern Oregon and northern California. On Saturday, several hundred people gathered at Southern Oregon University to hear a series of panel discussions on how local communities could respond.

The National Weather Service in Medford found that -- as of late August -- air quality ratings in the Rogue Valley reached “Unhealthy” or worse on 24 days. That’s nearly triple the number of bad air days from just five years ago.

It’s against this dismal backdrop that Oregon Rep. Pam Marsh (D-Ashland) convened this event. More than a dozen panelists and moderators explored the ways forest management practices and climate conditions influence wildfire in the region, and the impacts fire and smoke have on public health and the economy.

Chris Dunn, a researcher at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, says it’s not a question of preventing forest fires.

“Recognizing that fire is inevitable, and accepting the inevitability is the first step to recognizing that we’re going to have to have to live with smoke,” he says. “I think I once couched it like ‘transitioning from Smokey Bear to smoky air.’  That’s really what we’re talking about.”

The difference, Dunn says, is that by thinning overgrown forests and using prescribed burning in ways that limit the amount of smoke getting into communities, forest managers could reduce the smoke from out-of-control wildfires.

Mark Webb says getting buy-in for that can be a long-term project, especially in communities where neighbors have been fighting over forestry practices for decades.

“And that involves, I think, treating people humanely, as individuals that warrant respect, probably have a good reason for their concerns,” he says. “So you ask questions, you try to figure out where they’re coming from. You spend time with them.”

Webb heads Blue Mountain Forest Partners, a non-profit that works to make the forests and communities in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon healthier and more resilient. Webb says key to getting past gridlocked disputes over forest management is to try to look at it from the land’s perspective.

“You ask, ‘What does the landscape need, after a hundred years of active management?’ When we can do that, and we can start to accommodate our interests to that, then we can have the conversations whereby we can start providing solutions and make a difference both for the landscape and the communities that depend on those landscapes.”

But Webb concedes that, even if local forests can be brought back into a healthy balance, the climate conditions that led to relatively smoke-free summers in the past are not likely to return.

Dr. Richard Leman is with the Oregon Health Authority. He says there’s not much research specifically on the health impacts of wildfire smoke, but studies of other types of air pollution with similar characteristics point to dangers.

“It does look as though if young kids are exposed for months to years it may somewhat increase their risk of developing asthma down the road,” he says.

Lehman says a properly-fitted respirator can help to avoid breathing unhealthy levels of smoke. But, he says, especially for those with serious lung and heart conditions …

“Since the risk is basically due to the amount of smoke that you’re exposed to and the total time you’re exposed, the more time you’re inside, in a less smoky space, the better off you are.”

Health authorities are working to make information more publicly accessible, with websites and smartphone apps that track air quality readings.

According to Travel Oregon, last year’s wildfire smoke caused an estimated $51 million in losses to the state’s tourism industry. And Sandra Slattery, with the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, says it’s almost certainly worse this year. But, she says, the business community is starting to adjust to the increasing likelihood of summertime smoke.

“I think a normal reaction to the situation that we’ve all experienced is, ‘I sure hope that doesn’t happen again.’ Or ‘Whew! We’re through the worst of it.’ But we prefer a positive, proactive approach.”

Slattery points to the Ashland Chamber’s collaborative efforts with business, government and non-profit partners to educate business owners and the public about strategies for adapting to smoke.

After the forum, Pam Marsh said she was encouraged by the level of community engagement.

“There is no easy answer, and people get that. So they’re willing to sit through three hours to talk about what all the things are that are on the table, just to get the conversation going. That’s cool.”

Marsh says she hopes to harness state resources to support local efforts to develop community resilience in the face of the challenges and uncertainties of this “new normal” in southern Oregon.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.