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Air Quality Alert Extended Until (At Least) Thursday

Hazardous-level Air Quality Index readings registered Sunday afternoon in downtown Ashland, Ore. AQI readings from Unhealthy to Hazardous continue throughout the region.
Liam Moriarty
JPR News
Hazardous-level Air Quality Index readings registered Sunday afternoon in downtown Ashland, Ore. AQI readings from Unhealthy to Hazardous continue throughout the region.

Almost all of the West Coast, from San Diego to Vancouver, Canada, remains covered in thick layers of unhealthy smoke.

UPDATE: Tuesday, Sept. 15, 5:15 a.m. ...

Much of Oregon remains under an air quality alert that has been extended until noon on Thursday, as winds forecasters were expecting over the weekend didn’t materialize. And Air Quality Index readings in Southern Oregon and Northern California continue to range mostly from Unhealthy to Hazardous.

Rebecca Muessle with the National Weather Service said that the thick smoke blanketing the West Coast has made winds harder to predict, since they’ve stopped the warming afternoon temperatures that can create windy conditions.

“We do have a system moving in this afternoon into tomorrow,” Muessle said Monday. “We could see some slight improvements, but realistically we’re not expecting enough that would really improve air quality drastically... In the last couple days, a lot of our forecasts have been burned by the smoke.”

Lighter winds from the west have calmed the hot, dry and gusty conditions that gave rise to the current firestorm, but some threats exist. Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said increasing winds in central and Southern Oregon could push fires to the east, and that expected rain in coming days could bring risks along with relief.

“That rain may come with some lightning and thunderstorms, particularly on the east side of the state, which could cause new fire starts,” Grafe said.

Some school districts announced closures due to the hazardous air conditions.

How Bad Is It?

Researchers and health experts having such high levels of smoke for so many people is unprecedented. In most of the West Coast, the air is not safe to breathe.

Air Quality Index map for Tuesday, Sept. 15, 5:00 a.m.
Air Quality Index map for Tuesday, Sept. 15, 5:00 a.m.

Experts can’t say it’s the worst smoke event ever to happen, but they all say it’s the worst smoke event they’ve ever seen or heard of — except, perhaps, smoke following the 2019–2020 wildfires in Australia. It’s certainly the smokiest Oregon has ever been.

While the air quality is expected to improve, it will remain unhealthy in many areas for at least the next few days. Changes in fire behavior, winds and the geography of certain areas could keep some cities and towns at unhealthy levels much longer.

Liam Moriarty

UPDATE: Monday, Sept. 14, 6:45 a.m. ...

Predicted strong winds did not materialize yesterday and the Red Flag Warning that had been issued for much of the JPR listening area is no longer in effect.

That means the winds that could have fanned the region’s wildfires didn’t.

But the lack of wind also means the heavy smoke hanging over the region is still with us. An Air Quality Alert remains in effect until at least noon Monday.

Currently, with few exceptions, Air Quality Index readings throughout the region range from Unhealthy to Hazardous.

A map of Air Quality INdex levels around Northern California and Southern Oregon on Monday morning.
A map of Air Quality Index levels around Northern California and Southern Oregon on Monday morning.
Liam Moriarty

UPDATE: Sunday, Sept. 13, 9:00 a.m. ...

Smoke from the wildfires all along the West Coast led to Air Quality Index readings of 500 or higher in many parts of the region Saturday.

Any air quality index above 300 is considered hazardous. Anything greater than 500 is off the index.

This morning, most readings are still in the Hazardous zone, but the pollution levels are significantly lower.

Roseburg is still barely off the charts with an AQI reading of 501 and Cave Junction isn't much better at 424, but Medford is at 313, Ashland at 318 and Klamath Falls at 348.

Grants Pass is at 259, which is merely in the Very Unhealthy category.

In California, Happy Camp — right in the middle of the Slater Fire — is rated as having the the seventh-worst air pollution of any town in the state, with a 431 AQI reading.

Orleans and Hoopa have similarly Hazardous AQI readings.

The air in Yreka, at AQI 274, is considered Very Unhealthy, while Redding and Eureka are enjoying relatively clean air with AQI ratings in the Unhealthy range.

Increased winds forecast for Sunday afternoon may clear the air somewhat. But they may also fan wildfires, producing more smoke.

Public health authorities are urging people to stay indoors and avoid strenuous activity until pollution levels drop a good deal more than they have so far.

Liam Moriarty

UPDATE: Saturday, Sept. 12, 8:00 a.m. ...

Public health authorities have issued advisories all along the West Coast for severely degraded air quality.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality expects the air quality advisory to last until at least Monday afternoon. DEQ and partner agencies will continue to monitor smoke in the state.

Smoke levels are fluctuating between Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (orange) and Hazardous (maroon) in these areas. When smoke levels are hazardous everyone needs to take steps to protect themselves. Areas closest to fires – such as Jackson, Josephine, Douglas and Lane Counties in Oregon and Humbolds, Siskiyou, Trinity and Del Norte Counties in California - are having the worst smoke impacts.

Smoke can irritate the eyes and lungs and worsen some medical conditions. Young children, adults over 65, pregnant women and people with heart disease, asthma or other respiratory conditions are most at risk.

Protect your health when smoke levels are high:

  • Avoid outdoor activities and stay inside if possible. Keep windows and doors closed.
  • Be aware of smoke in your area and avoid places with the highest levels.
  • Use high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. These can be portable filters or can be installed in indoor heating, ventilation, cooling and air purification systems. You can also create your own air purifying filter by following these easy to follow instructions: DIY air filter factsheet.
  • If you have heart or lung disease or asthma, follow your healthcare provider’s advice.
  • Consider leaving the area if smoke levels are hazardous and you have heart disease, asthma or other respiratory conditions. Otherwise, please wait to be directed to evacuate. Pay attention to evacuation notices. If you choose to leave the area, remember to take face coverings and hand sanitizer with you to help protect yourself and others from COVID-19.

Cloth, dust and surgical masks don’t protect from the harmful particles in smoke. N95 respirators that are tested to ensure proper fit and that are worn correctly may provide protection. Otherwise, they might just provide a false sense of security. They are not available in children’s sizes and are not recommended for strenuous activities. N95 respirators are in limited supply due to COVID-19. Additional information on wildfire smoke and COVID-19 can be found on the Centers for Disease Control webpage.

Click here for an interactive map of Air Quality Index monitors along the West Coast.

Liam Moriarty