You don’t have to look at Oregon’s Air Quality Index to know when Klamath Falls has “bad” air. Last week was an example — gray “grit” hanging in the air, visible from ground level.

The index has been in the unhealthy range enough already this year to threaten Klamath County’s efforts to reach air quality attainment status by 2014. Failure to do so, in addition to being a health hazard, could trigger heavy state and federal penalties that threaten the county’s efforts to encourage job-producing development.

Local residents can help by reducing the amount of wood being burned, especially during inversions. Wood stoves are responsible for about 78 percent of the smoke in the Klamath Falls urban area, according to a 2008 study by the Department of Environmental Quality.

Companies that have branches in Klamath Falls can also help by contributing funds to help retire residential wood stoves that don’t meet air quality standards. It’s in their own interests to do so since they gain from an improved economy in this area.

Klamath County has been battling the smoke problem for decades. Throughout its history as a timber and mill town, wood has been a common fuel for heat in homes.

Air quality has improved a great deal over the years since the 1970s and ’80s when heavy layers of smoke hung over residential areas at chimney heights. The focus now is on cleaning up the smaller smoke particles that get deeper into the lungs and are more dangerous than the bigger, more noticeable ones, which have been largely eliminated.

The county has succeeded in removing many wood stoves that don’t comply with air quality standards through buyout programs and a requirement that heating has to be upgraded for compliance when homes change owners. A county ordinance also requires homes have at least two sources of heat, rather than just rely on wood stoves. Exemptions are granted, however.

Even with undeniable progress, there are still bad days, especially during frigid weather, which helps create an inversion that seals the smoke into the natural basin that surrounds the Klamath Falls area.

Klamath County Commissioner Dennis Linthicum says he will try to get the Environmental Protection Agency to declare the inversion and smoky conditions of last week an extreme weather event to qualify the county for an exemption. We hope he succeeds, but the best long-range answer is to clean up the air.