o one wants to return from a morning run with a scratchy throat, stinging eyes, and lungs that feel like Muhammad Ali's speed bag. With several wildfires clawing their way through Central Oregon, athletes of all levels should be aware of what they're up against.
Smoke from nearby wildfires has turned Bend and the surrounding communities opaque over the last several weeks. Scratchy throats, bloodshot eyes, irritated sinuses and headaches are all common side effects for those living or working in close proximity of the flames. While indiscriminate in nature, smoke tends to be a more serious concern to those keen on exercising outdoors.
"The main concern is respiration. With the smoke, all the ash in the air can have negative effects on respiratory rate, and ash can also affect one's lungs," said Joanna Engel, director of athletic training services at the University of La Verne in Southern California.
Engel has worked with collegiate - level athletes for over a decade. Wildfire smoke is a serious concern for the safety of her athletes. During exercise, respiratory rates increase. With the body demanding more oxygen, pollutants in smoke are consumed at higher rates than normal. On several occasions, Engel has had to cancel training sessions or move athletes indoors to avoid wildfire smoke. Likewise, in Bend and Central Oregon, youth sports programs including the Bend FC Timbers soccer club have been forced to cancel practices due to air quality.
"We use Southern California AQMD (Air Quality Management District) reports. If it's above yellow, we stay inside. I also check to see if there's ash in the air, if so, we stay inside regardless of AQMD," said Engel.
In Central Oregon, there are several ways to monitor air quality.
A great resource for checking air quality in real time is AQICN.org. Reliable air quality sources will display the Air Quality Index (AQI)—a specific number, along with a corresponding color. The AQI scale goes from 0-500 with higher AQI indicating greater health concern.
The Environmental Protection Agency "calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide." As of 6pm, Tuesday, the AQI for Sisters was 344 (hazardous) and 411 (hazardous) for Bend. High AQI levels have been affecting people in Sisters and the surrounding area.
"After a long week of work, prepping for the eclipse, I was hoping to use last week to get outside and enjoy what's left of summer. Honestly, I haven't had much desire to be outside with so much smoke and ash in the air," said Shea Babich, who lives in Sisters.
Anyone looking to partake in outdoor activities or exercise can and should consult the AQI when wildfires are ablaze in their region. As Engel suggested, there are other notable signs, beyond the AQI, to be aware of. General visibility is a key indicator, which can be useful when gauging wildfire smoke levels. Smoke plumes are known to shift, spread and drift sporadically due to changes in wind and weather. Also, look for ash in the air, and avoid that outdoor workout if it's present, as it has been in recent weeks.
Wildfire smoke itself is a concoction of many different substances, water vapor being the majority. While the main ingredient may be harmless, breathing in the additional components — carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and irritant volatile organic compounds — can result in serious health issues. The U.S. Forest Service website notes individuals with heart or lung disease, congestive heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and asthma as having extra risks in smoky areas.
Outdoor fitness enthusiasts may try to find ways to grind out exercise regardless of smoke, but it's not encouraged—especially when the AQI is above 100, the satisfactory mark set by the EPA. Surgical masks may seem like an effective preventative measure, but these masks only filter large particles, not tiny particulate matter, or the host of harmful gases also present in smoke.
When wildfire smoke is thick enough to be stirred with a spoon, it's best to keep workouts indoors. Indoor training on days with poor AQI is a common option for athletes from recreational league youth groups, all the way up to the professional level.
If the intention of exercise is physical and mental well-being, enduring wildfire smoke for torturous sprints, bike rides or high-intensity exercise in the local park are the antithesis. Trying to outrun, out-wit, or tough-out thick smoke won't work. Instead, take advantage of indoor facilities, seek out regions with lower AQI readings or take the day off.
In the meantime, show some appreciation and support for the firefighters who are doing their best to battle multiple active wildfires.
Want to help support firefighters' efforts? Donate to the Wildland Firefighters Association: wffoundation.org.