The U.S. Forest Service has ramped up its air-quality monitoring as it digs in for a long fire season that could pose severe health concerns for local residents.
A temporary monitor in Ashland became operational Monday and showed that part of the valley had slightly less pollution than Medford — at least for that day.
Look for a mask with the designation "N95," which indicates it cuts out 95 percent of pollutants. So if the air quality reading is 300 — considered hazardous — you effectively would be breathing 15, considered in the healthy range.
— Source: U.S. Forest Service
The Forest Service recently installed monitors in Glendale and Merlin and is considering one in Brookings as smoke drifts over the region from five major fires burning to the north.
"We're always looking to see what additional communities need monitoring," said Rick Graw, air quality program manager with the Forest Service.
Graw said local residents wondered how Ashland's air compared to Medford's.
Based on only one day of data on Monday, Ashland's air was in the "moderate" range while Medford's was in the "unhealthy for sensitive persons" range.
Graw said he will be working on a comparison chart for the two cities as more data rolls in over the next week.
The Forest Service has called in an air quality resource team to Southern Oregon because it expects a long season of fires and smoke.
Graw and his associate, air resource specialist Andrea Holland, have been working with local schools to alert them about air-quality issues as school sports teams gear up. Pop Warner football starts in about a week.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has eight monitors already installed from Roseburg to Medford.
To alert residents to potentially health-threatening levels of air pollution, the Forest Service has been installing more of the temporary monitors to keep track of other communities.
Graw said that pollution levels appear to be lowest before 8 a.m. and then build during the day.
The monitors suck in air and filter out the larger particles, while very fine particles, which can get lodged deep in the lungs, pass over a beam of light. A light receptor detects how much energy is lost from the beam of light, which indicates the amount of fine particles in the air.
Each monitor costs $13,000.
Graw said the monitors are deployed throughout the country where fires break out. Reader boards on Interstate 5 alert drivers to turn on their headlights based on data from the monitors.
The Forest Service also wants to know how much air pollution firefighters are exposed to in base camps. The information helps the firefighters and other support people prepare for poor air-quality days.
Graw said cloth respirator masks are fairly effective at filtering out the tiny particles. For 2.5 micron particles, much tinier than the width of a human hair, the masks labeled "N95" are effective at filtering out 95 percent. If the air-quality reading for these fine particles is 300 micrograms per cubic liter of air — considered hazardous — the masks can be expected to reduce the amount to 15 micrograms per cubic liter, Graw said.
William Knight, spokesman for the DEQ, said the new website that displays information about air quality has been popular.
"We've gotten 40,000 hits on it in the past week," he said.
The type of pollution displayed on the website is particularly geared to respiratory issues, because the very fine particles lodge deep in the lungs and can get into the bloodstream, Knight said.
On Monday, for instance, residents of Medford were warned to avoid prolonged outdoor exertion, particularly those with heart or lung disease.
On the same day, residents of Shady Cove and Grants Pass had "unhealthy" air, and those with heart or lung disease were warned to avoid all physical outdoor activity.
Another way to check on air quality is to determine the distance you are standing from a familiar landmark, Knight said.
For instance, Roxy Ann is about three to four miles from downtown Medford as the crow flies. If the mountain is barely visible, it means the air is probably unhealthy for sensitive groups.
Less than a half-mile of visibility generally means the air is considered hazardous.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.