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Smoke prompts outdoor athletics alert


Jackson County's high-school athletes got a break from preseason workouts Wednesday when smoky air prompted public health officials to ask coaches to cancel strenuous outdoor activities.

Smoke from wildland fires has made the air unhealthy during times of peak pollution, said Hank Collins, Jackson County's director of health and human services. Collins noted that air pollution in the valley has not reached unhealthful levels as defined by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, but there are times during the day when the air is definitely unhealthy in some areas.

The problem lies in determining where ' and when ' the air may be unhealthy, said John Becker, DEQ's air quality manager for Southern Oregon. DEQ measures pollution on a 24-hour average.

The daily average figure masks peak pollution levels when the air is definitely unhealthy, Collins said. We can't use that 24-hour standard anymore. There are three- to five-hour periods when it's terrible.

Collins said he would meet with DEQ officials this morning to decide whether outdoor drills might resume.

Health officials have struggled with the air-quality issue since lightning kindled dozens of fires across Oregon in mid-July. Making matters worse is the East Antelope fire, which broke out near Grizzly Peak on Tuesday.

Becker said smoke concentration varies dramatically from one day to the next and can change significantly within a few hours.

Air inversions come and go, Becker said. Winds come and go.

Communities that are situated closer to the fires, such as Shady Cove and Cave Junction, would generally have higher smoke concentrations than those that are farther removed from the flames, such as Medford, he added.

Athletic directors across the Rogue Valley wondered how best to interpret health warnings about smoke. In Medford, Wednesday-night practices were canceled and coaches weren't sure whether they'd continue today.

We're operating on a day-by-day basis, said Chris Fossen, a secretary in the athletic department at North Medford High School. We're strictly going by what the health department is requesting.

In Ashland, athletic director Jim Nagel has allowed his teams to work out outdoors when the smoke appeared to clear. He said he was following health department guidelines to curtail strenuous activity when visibility is less than a half-mile.

I looked up and I could still make out Grizzly Peak, he said. That's a good five miles away. I told the kids, if this starts to bother you, let me know.

Coaches, just like everyone else, only can use common sense, Nagel said. If it's too bad, we'll modify the exercises and move inside if we can.

Visibility can be used as a general guideline to estimate smoke levels, said Gary Stevens, Jackson County director of environmental health. Smoke levels that reduce visibility to less than one mile are probably unhealthy for the general population, Stevens said. People who have lung disease or asthma may encounter problems when visibility is limited to three to five miles.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492, or e-mail