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Klamath Falls Seeks Air Quality Exemptions For Smoky Days

Jim Carey of Klamath County Public Health
Oregon Smoke Blog
Wildfire smoke fills the Klamath Basin on July 18, 2018.

Smoke-filled summers caused parts of southern Oregon to violate national air quality standards in 2017. Now the state is asking federal regulators to disregard those smoky days when calculating overall air quality measurements.

Lightning-caused wildfires near Klamath Falls and Oakridge two summers ago filled the skies with unhealthy levels of smoke pollution. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is asking federal regulators to dismiss those days as an “exceptional event,” since the fires occurred naturally.

“Wildfires are considered exceptional events because they are not caused by people,” Oregon DEQ air quality planner D Pei Wu said. “And the regulatory framework with the Environmental Protection Agency is really about us as people keeping the air as clean as possible, lowering the health impacts, and protecting community health.”

The Oregon DEQ has filed its request with the EPA. It’s accepting public comments on its request until May 20.

Wu says the spike in unhealthy air two summers ago took southern Oregonians by surprise.

“It was the worst forest fire year that we had seen in decades,” Wu said. “People were saying that will never happen again. Then in 2018, the data was even more extreme.”

While smoky summer days may be becoming more common in southern Oregon, DEQ says they shouldn’t be counted among federal regulations if they’re naturally occuring and out of its control.

If those extremely smoky days aren’t omitted, then Klamath Falls and Oakridge risk losing some federal funds for violating national air quality standards.

Wu says DEQ is addressing wildfire smoke in other ways, like collaborating with other state agencies on fire management programs and establishing clean air centers.

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