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COVID, fire season could be bad combination

Just when we started to gradually resume what used to be normal activities — visiting a park, dining in a restaurant, getting a haircut — Tuesday morning brought a reminder that COVID-19 is not the only threat to health we face this year. The distinct aroma of smoke permeated the air in Medford, the result of a debris-pile fire on the Bear Creek Greenway.

While attention and concern has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic, and rightly so, we’ve also been in fire season since May 1 — one of the earliest start dates in the past 50 years.

Tuesday’s fire, cause undetermined, started in a large pile of slash from brush-clearing along the Greenway. Multiple fire engines, water tenders and firefighters worked to suppress the blaze.

That’s not a good omen for the season, as temperatures were forecast to reach into the 90s Thursday and Friday. Rain is expected this weekend, but the mountain snowpack is far below normal, and the extended outlook calls for below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures.

Restrictions in place from the pandemic may offer some benefit, as some state parks remain closed and people are still urged to avoid non-essential travel. Human-caused fires are the only kind we have any real control over, so it is imperative that everyone use extreme caution when hiking or camping, and use extra care at home as well.

Lightning is the wild card, and can make the difference between a relatively calm fire season and a catastrophic one. It was lightning that touched off wildfires in July 2018 that consumed more than 250,000 acres in Southern Oregon.

Coronavirus restrictions will hamper firefighters, who will be asked to travel in separate vehicles when possible and wear masks when it’s not, along with maintaining 10 feet of distance from each other on fire lines and at fire staging areas.

As for the rest of us, smoke from wildfires will pose even more of a risk than in past years. COVID-19 attacks the lungs, so contracting the disease after exposure to heavy smoke could be a deadly combination.

Cloth masks that prevent spreading coronavirus to others offer the wearer no protection against fine smoke particles. That requires an N-95 mask, which are in short supply because they have been prioritized for health-care workers.

If you have N-95 masks left over from previous fire seasons, hang onto them. If not, it might be a good idea to stock up, ordering online if necessary.

State officials should take steps to procure additional N-95 masks for public use in case of wildfire smoke.

Fire season can be a challenge at the best of times. This year adds another layer of concern.