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Smoke is in the Air

Bend-Prineville air quality ranked No. 22 for the most polluted cities for short-term particle pollution

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Even though Central Oregon got hit by a late snowstorm this winter, information from the National Interagency Fire Center says normal significant wildfire potential is expected during this year's fire season, which typically runs from May to August.

Smoke fills the air during the 2017 Milli Fire near Sisters. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Smoke fills the air during the 2017 Milli Fire near Sisters.

According to the NIFC, outlooks through spring and summer continue to indicate warmer-than-average conditions for the region. Long-range outlooks suggest fire danger will rise to be above average during the summer.

And where there's fire, there's smoke.

The American Lung Association ranked Bend-Prineville this year as No.22 in its "People at Risk in 25 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Short-Term Particle Pollution."

According to Laura Gleim, public affairs specialist for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's Eastern Region, although the ALA's report mentions Bend, the report only uses data from an air monitor in Prineville.

Gleim said because of Prineville's location, sitting in a "bowl," the city more easily captures and retains woodstove smoke during the winter, naturally leading to worse air quality when people are burning their stoves. Bend and the rest of Deschutes County have more open geography, Gleim said, and don't retain as much smoke in the winter.

During wildfire season, however, it can be a different story. If the fires are burning in the Cascades, Bend can have worse air quality than Prineville. And, Gleim said, wildfires are by far the biggest source of air pollution in the Bend area.

Gleim and the ALA said wildfires have been increasing across the Western United States in the last decade, and are expected to become even more frequent. According to the ALA, the Bend-Prineville area experienced nearly three times as many unhealthy particle days in 2018, in comparison to its 2017 report. The ALA said many of the spikes were directly linked to wildfires.

"Bend had three weeks of air quality that was unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse in 2017 and one week in 2018," Gleim wrote in an email to the Source. "Before 2017, Bend did not have over three days of unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse in any year since we started monitoring."

According to a chart from the Oregon DEQ, the agency started monitoring in air quality in 1989. Before 2017, there were only 11 days total in Bend with unhealthy air quality caused by wildfire.

Gleim said that outside of the smoke from wildfires and some from woodburning stoves, the air quality in Bend is typically pretty good.

Some years in the spring, the forests around Bend are burned by managing agencies to keep the threat of wildfires down. Gleim said that the prescribed burns do contribute to some air pollution, but they're relatively low in comparison to a full-fledged wildfire—and those burns help create healthier forests and reduce the severity of wildfires.

Particle pollution, according to the ALA, is a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles that are in the air people breathe. Particle pollution can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer and asthma attacks. According to the ALA, particle pollution is more dangerous for people over 65 and infants, children and teens. People at the greatest risk of harm from short-term particle pollution are those with lung cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Bakersfield, Calif., was the most polluted city by short-term particle pollution, according to the ALA's report. Medford-Grants Pass was the 10th most polluted city for year-round particle pollution and Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif., was the N0.1 most ozone-polluted city in the country.

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