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Ripple Effects: Air quality

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneWildfire smoke settles Monday in the Rogue Valley .

It’s a dreaded side effect to every fire season in Southern Oregon ― smoke and poor air quality.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality says summers are their busy season.

“DEQ has a network of monitors around the state that track air quality and then assigns a color-coded value to those monitors,” says Laura Gleim with the DEQ. “It's really important for us to get information out and in a really timely fashion so that people can make informed decisions, protect their health and protect their families.”

The tricky part comes when the DEQ and local meteorologists start to track the smoke.

“Bad air quality can really have a huge impact on our forecast for that day, anywhere from dropping the forecast by a few degrees or if we have some instability in the atmosphere and if we're looking for some rain development or storm development, it can actually inhibit that growth,” News 10 Meteorologist Ali Van Fleet says.

She says smoke travels and the wind can push it into different areas.

“It also depends on the time frame, so if you have in the time it takes that smoke to get from point A to point B, the chemicals that are inside the wildfire can actually react with sunlight and other chemicals in the air making it more deadly by the time it gets to a certain location,” Van Fleet says.

“There are those fires burning down in Northern California and the skies down in Southern Oregon were pretty smoky. So, you were seeing that smoke, but air quality was still pretty good, the smoke was high up in the atmosphere, not down at ground level where people breathe," Gleim says.

When the winds shifted, the smoke from fires in Northern California then traveled into Klamath Falls and Lakeview ― changes Gleim says can happen at the drop of a hat. She says it’s important for people to be aware of the air quality, check the air quality index and then adjust their plans as needed.

“DEQ coordinates a team of federal, state, local and tribal partners that all come together and share information about what we're seeing on the monitors and in the forecast and really what's happening on the ground. So, we use that group to share information and then get information out to the public when it's needed,” Gleim says.

“Inside wildfire smoke you have so many bad things. You have carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, organic compounds and particulate matter. Particulate matter or PM 2.5 is really small, microscopic liquid or solid drops and they're all suspended within air and the reason why it's so dangerous is because it's so tiny, it can go inside your lungs, it can get into your bloodstream and cause a lot of health impacts,” Van Fleet says.

The smoke can also change the forecast on a day-to-day basis,.

“You can have stagnant air that happens from too much wildfire smoke, like what we saw last year after Almeda. There's so much smoke, it's so thick, sunlight isn't able to reach the ground and heat the ground up,” Van Fleet says. “During a normal day, when it's clear, you have afternoon mixing, or afternoon wind that picks up. The sun heats the air closest to the surface, you have that air that rises, so you start to see that circulation and that mixing. Whenever there's too much wildfire smoke and the sunlight isn't able to heat up the ground, you start to see that stagnant air.”

The DEQ says it’s incredibly important to not only pay attention to the air quality but to make changes when the air is unhealthy. Gleim says stay inside if possible, keep doors and windows closed, and if the air is really unhealthy, wear a mask. She says the kind of masks that work best are N95 or P100 masks.

“People should really pay attention to the air quality, that's what's going to protect you and your families,” Gleim says.