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Air quality degrades in Klamath Falls

The horizon remains hazy with little visibility for even the closest hills as several vehicles continue down Washburn Way on to Crater Lake Parkway in Klamath Falls Tuesday, July 31.

This August has been one of the worst months of air quality for Klamath Falls when compared to recent summers.

Unhealthy air quality conditions continue to spread across the state as smoke from several area wildfires continues to shift around.

The majority of the month has had “unhealthy” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups” advisories on most days, according to averages from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Readings for Klamath Falls in 2018 are based on monitoring stations at Peterson Elementary School in the Altamont area.

Though there have been “moderate” air quality periods some days, poor air quality spikes continue to affect outdoor activities and businesses.

“We’re just in the perfect geographic situation to bring the smoke down,” said Valeree Lane, program coordinator with Klamath County Public Health.

Smoke continued to cloud the horizon Monday as air quality numbers remained “unhealthy for sensitive groups” with a value of 137 as of noon, according to DEQ’s air quality index ratings.

Fire season continues

Air quality in the Klamath Basin started its downhill trek in July, just days after the massive Carr Fire in Northern California ravaged Redding, the Whiskeytown National Recreational Area and other communities.

When compared to previous years, this August has had many more unhealthy and very unhealthy days due to smoke coming into the area. There have already been 11 “unhealthy” days, two “very unhealthy” days and one “hazardous” – that’s an AQI rating of more than 300 – up to Aug. 20, according to data from Oregon DEQ.

In 2015 between Aug. 1 and 18, there was only one day that averaged “unhealthy” and another day that was “very unhealthy,” though there were also three days identified as “unsafe for sensitive groups.”

These trends continued last summer when there were only two “unhealthy” days between the same period of time.

Meanwhile, other large wildfires such as the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires have continued to burn in Josephine County.

As of press time, both fires covered more than 120,000 acres. The Klondike fire continues to be a bigger threat at 68,000 acres burned with only 30 percent containment.

How much smoke arrives in the Basin often depends on continued luck with wind currents and overnight conditions.

“It just seems to be somewhat typical,” Lane said of summers in Klamath Falls.

What comes next?

Though the day-to-day air quality has much to do with weather patterns, some have continued to discuss possible solutions along the horizon.

At a stop during a Klamath County Chamber of Commerce meeting Aug. 2, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., told board members that he wanted to look into a study to determine the detrimental health effects of air quality in the area. Walden also commented on forest management being part of the issue.

The office of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also sent out a news release on Aug. 16 saying that the senator met with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen to discuss an 80-million acre backlog of hazardous fuels reduction, which could contribute to larger fires in the long run.

“Improving the health of our forests is a key step to reduce the risk of dangerous wildfires,” Wyden said in the release.

Though no immediate reprieve from wildfire smoke seems to be in sight, The Medford Mail Tribune reports that most of Southwest Oregon could see relief by late Wednesday due to upcoming wind shifts. Maps from the National Weather Service also show that a low pressure system continues to pull more smoke in from the northeast.

For Lane and other public health officials in the area, this often leads to a “only time will tell” scenario.

“We’re basically at the mercy of the elements,” Lane said.