ASHLAND — With her dogs Blue and Tia leading the way, Sherril Mortensen jogs down the road into the Mount Ashland Ski Area parking lot with clean air in her lungs and a smile on her face.
Down the mountain in Ashland, the air is so thick with wildfire smoke that she can barely last 10 minutes strolling through town without wincing.
Up here, she easily finishes her 10-mile run, panting far less than the dogs.
"I need to go somewhere to do what I love to do," Mortensen says. "This is where the air is clear, where I can run. It's amazing up here."
Mortensen is one of a growing number of smoke refugees fleeing the unhealthy and sometimes hazardous smoke conditions on the Rogue Valley floor and seeking refuge near the top of Mount Ashland.
The 7,533-foot mountain rises like an oasis over the smoke that has kept its unhealthy grip on the region's lowlands for weeks as lightning-ignited fires ring the valley.
Word is getting out that, at least most days, the heavy smoke doesn't work its way up the mountainside, so there is no daily wood smoke eclipse like for those below.
And if you come up, you'd better bring those sunglasses that you haven't needed the past three weeks.
"We've been pretty lucky here, being above it all," says Hiram Towle, general manager of the Mount Ashland Ski Area. "Up here, it's sunny.
"Looking at blue sky overhead is awesome," Towle says.
It's awesome enough that lowlanders started telephoning the ski area earlier this week when its web cam went down amid a power glitch, Towle says.
The ski area's lodge is in the midst of a $1.6 million renovation so it can't open for the smoke-runners, but a steady stream of visitors is either driving up to the upper parking lot for a foray up the mountain like Mortensen or hanging out in the parking lot.
"It's public land, so we enjoy people coming up," Towle says.
Ryan Neal, a relative newcomer to the Rogue Valley, heard about the mountain's web cam while net-surfing in an Ashland coffee shop last week. He's been checking it ever since, already driving up the mountain three times for his regular respite.
"Breathing happens to be one of my favorite things to do," Neal says. "I miss it."
As smoke wafts in the valley below him, Neal says he doesn't want to play smoke refugee too often.
"I sure hope this isn't my new normal," he says.
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.