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Wildfire Smoke Challenges Homeless, Sensitive Populations in Southern Oregon

Geoffrey Riley | JPR News

Wildfires are pouring smoke into the valleys of southern Oregon, making hazardous air that’s nearly unbreathable. Even healthy people may experience chest pain, burning eyes or a phlegmy cough if they spend too much time outdoors.

It’s even worse for people who already have breathing problems. Kimberlee Rupert-Coyotl lives in the Rogue Valley. She says the smoke is keeping her family inside.

“I have a 16-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son,” Rupert-Coyotl said. “And they both have asthma. They both have the bark going on.”

Health officials advise wearing dust masks that filter tiny smoke particles. This makes for an almost apocalyptic scene: a dark grey sky, ash everywhere, and people’s faces covered by masks.

The safest option is staying indoors, but that’s not an option for everyone. Bobby Plumlee was toughing it out at a park in Medford Tuesday afternoon.

“I live right here,” he said. “Outdoors is my house right now.”

Hawthorne Park was dotted with other people like Plumlee who don’t have homes to protect themselves from unhealthy or hazardous air. And right then, none of them were wearing special masks that can filter smoke.

Plumlee says the people inside local businesses have been more sympathetic to him than usual.

“People at the stores have been very helpful,” he said. “They give you ice.”

He hopes the smoke lets up soon, but so far, it’s not looking good. Meteorologists predict at least a few more days of choked air as long as the wildfires rage on.  

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