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Little building with whirligigs tests air

Part storage shed, part science fair project, the contraption tucked behind Laurene Cone's west Medford home sure doesn't look like the pulse of a firestorm.

But in recent weeks, the bland beige building topped with weird whirligigs has been nothing less than ground zero in the quest for good air quality in Southern Oregon.

As fires have raged throughout the region, the curious machine stuck behind Cone's 1952 bungalow has whirred and hummed, measuring the amount of ash, soot and other impurities in the smoky air.

It's the area's only neighborhood scale particulate monitor, a device installed five years ago when the state Department of Environmental Quality was looking for a generic sampling site.

We wanted to measure typically what people are exposed to when they work and play, said Jeff Smith, air quality monitoring manager for the DEQ's state laboratory.

A previous site near Washington School was tainted by too many trees and shrubs. What the DEQ wanted was a low, flat yard in a residential Medford neighborhood.

The shingle-sided house was just the ticket.

They knocked on the door and asked, recalls Cone, 79, whose late husband, retired postal worker Delbert Cone, answered the call. He was just a-bubble when I got home.

The boys, as Cone calls them, wondered if the couple would be interested in giving the government a section of their modest yard. There would be no maintenance, no muss, and less noise than the family's heat pump produced. DEQ officials would visit every other day and more on weekends, but they would take care not to intrude.

Besides, the government would pay the Cones &

36;30 a month for the privilege.

The Cones agreed.

It bothers me not at all, says Laurene Cone, a Medford Senior Center volunteer whose husband died in January. I don't have anything to do with it. It's locked up. I can't even get in and it's my yard.

Behind the chain link fence and the locked door is &

36;40,000 in equipment designed to keep tabs on particulate levels in the local air.

It's one of three types of measurement devices the DEQ uses; there's also an ozone monitor in Talent and a carbon monoxide device on the Brophy Building in downtown Medford.

Two types of equipment track particulates. Atop the structure, a filter sampler gathers and weighs airborne detritus.

The sample is like a fancy vacuum cleaner, Smith says.

It sucks in air and filters the particulates, which are sent to the Portland lab for weighing and measuring. A 24-hour sample taken on Wednesday's smoky afternoon, for instance, won't be fully analyzed for two weeks, Smith says.

A more responsive unit is the delicate nephelometer inside the structure. It estimates the level of particles in the air continuously.

We looked 20 minutes ago because we got a call, Smith says. The machine said, 'It's smoky.'

More precisely, the machine said the level of particulates at that moment was about 18 times the normal level on a typical summer day in Medford.

But that's not too much cause for concern. Final figures are calculated based on the average of 24-hour readings for the rooftop particulates and the nephelometer readings.

If the next two hours are 18, but the next two hours after that are clean, it could still be good air quality, Smith says.

The technicalities escape Cone, whose only interaction with the monitor came when she treated her grass with pesticide.

The boys wanted to know what I used because it could change the readings, she said.

In general, however, Smith says if Cone decided to throw a big barbecue or chain-smoke a pack of cigarettes in her back yard, the emissions would be regarded as part of normal neighborhood activity.

Cone's not likely to lean toward any polluting behavior, however. Her husband suffered for more than 20 years with emphysema, asthma and chronic bronchitis.

That was part of the reason I let them put it in, she says. They may leave it here forever, and I don't care.

Laurene Cone says she doesn't mind having a air pollution measuring devices in her west Medford back yard. The state pays her $30 a month for having the devices there. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven