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Fire brings dangerous air into Umatilla County

Kathy Aney

East Oregonian

Published on August 20, 2018 10:53AM

Last changed on August 20, 2018 5:41PM

Pendleton on Tuesday Aug. 14, 2018, on the left, and Pendleton on Monday Aug. 20, 2018. Pendleton has marked some of the worst air quality for the state accourding to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Pendleton on Tuesday Aug. 14, 2018, on the left, and Pendleton on Monday Aug. 20, 2018. Pendleton has marked some of the worst air quality for the state accourding to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

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Staff photo by E.J. HarrisA construction crew works on building a temporary bridge at the Eighth Street river crossing on Monday in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisA construction crew works on building a temporary bridge at the Eighth Street river crossing on Monday in Pendleton.

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Umatilla County’s air quality deteriorated Sunday evening as smoke from multiple fires drifted into the area.

On Monday morning, smoke still shrouded Pendleton like an unwanted houseguest that wouldn’t leave. Drivers used car headlights to make themselves visible. Most people stayed inside homes and offices, but some unlucky souls ventured outside to do their jobs.

Paul Lavadour, of Buttercreek Contractors, breathed smoky air as he prepped to install sewer pipe near Pendleton’s Eighth Street Bridge. Lavadour said the smoke took him back to his time on a Bureau of Indian Affairs fire crew.

“I feel it in my lungs,” Lavadour said of the haze.

At Til Taylor Park, Charles Tennent sat at a table in a quest to recruit bus drivers for Mid Columbia Bus Company. Tennent remained cheerful despite the smoke, but admitted he felt heaviness in his chest.

“My wife’s upset at me for being out here,” he said, flashing a grin.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality measures the tiny particles and gases in smoke that can irritate lungs, eyes and heart. The toxic mixture includes carbon monoxide, organic carbon and an array of 5,000-to-10,000 different gases. By midnight on Sunday, DEQ readings for Pendleton topped out at 404 micrograms per cubic meter, which is considered hazardous. The bad air lingered Monday. By noon, air quality had improved to 248, better, but still “very unhealthy” and the highest in the state. The measurement refers to fine particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, which is 3 percent the diameter of a human hair. The tiny particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs of those who breathe them.

The Umatilla County Health Department reported hazardous air in Pendleton and Milton-Freewater and “very unhealthy” air in Hermiston.

As fires dot the state, smoke would have rolled into the area no matter which way the wind blew. Most flowed from British Columbia, where around 600 fires burned. A NASA satellite captured images of the smoke from space. A National Weather Service simulation shows smoke flowing southwest into the Pacific Northwest from British Columbia and northeast from California and Oregon in two swirling masses of hazardous air.

Other fires added to smogginess around the state. Firefighters are working to contain the Stubblefield, Seale, Buckhorn and Jennie’s Peak fires in Gilliam and Wheeler counties. The Lonerock Fire burns near the community of Lonerock, about 22 miles southeast of Condon. Firefighters are battling the Westcliff Fire, northwest of Hood River, between Interstate 84 and the Columbia River. The Hood River County Sheriff’s Office ordered evacuations for residents in the area of the fire, which burns in rugged cliffs.

“We’re seeing a lot of smoke coming down from Canada and Washington,” said ODEQ spokeswoman Katherine Benenati. “Every county in the state except for Curry and Coos is under a smoke advisory.”

The Umatilla County Public Health Department advises people to limit exposure by staying indoors in well-ventilated areas. Administrator Jim Setzer advised everyone to lay low. People with heart conditions or any kind of lung impairment should take special care to avoid the bad air.

Setzer also advised against outdoor physical exertion such as running, biking or training for sports teams.

“You’re pulling more air in,” Setzer said. “You’re more at risk.”

To avoid that fate, the Pendleton High School cross country team has trained inside the school’s Gold Gym since last Tuesday.

“We’ve had to incorporate a lot of high intensity interval training, as well as sprints in the gym and stair repeats,” said head coach Ben Bradley. “It’s been a tough adaptation to dealing with the smoke, but the kids have worked their tails off and have done a great job dealing with this adversity early on.”

Those craving fresh air must be patient, according to National Weather Service forecaster Rob Brooks from the Pendleton office.

“We’re not going to get rid of this smoke until Thursday,” Brooks said. “We’re sitting under a high pressure system that is pushing the smoke downwards. It’s just sitting here.”

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.



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