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Air quality 'moderate,' says DEQ

Dear Since You Asked, I want to know three things: Where is the smoke coming from? When is it going away? And why do the television news reports keep saying the air quality is fine when it clearly isn't? My eyes are stinging, my throat is sore. When are things are going to get better in our area?

— Anne E. Ashland

We at the Since You Asked School of Smarting Peepers and Hacking Coughs hesitate to nitpick, Anne, but that's four questions.

We can answer at least two of your queries with alacrity, one with a certain level of certainty, and your final query still is up in the air (so to speak).

Rogue Valley residents can expect hazy skies and the smell of smoke at least through today thanks to three wildfires burning just across the border in Northern California, which have sent heavy smoke into the valley.

The Goff, Hello and Lick fires — together called the Fort Complex fires — were caused by lightning strikes on Aug. 5. Adding to the haze is another fire raging southwest of Lakeview, which was caused by a lightning strike on Aug. 6.

Regarding reports that the air quality is "good," we (hack, hack) understand your confusion.

Don't blame the messengers, Anne. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality website on Sunday afternoon listed the air quality in Medford as "moderate." Also listed as "moderate" were Bend, Burns, Crater Lake Klamath Falls, Lakeview and Prineville. Everywhere else, including the Applegate Valley, Cave Junction et al received "good" listings.

The Air Quality Index, or AQI, is a color-coded tool which shows air pollution levels. Green is good, yellow is moderate, orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups and red is unhealthy for all groups.

The DEQ issues Air Pollution Advisories when we forecast air pollution levels above the yellow, or moderate, AQI category and remain there for more than 72 hours, the site said.

The formation of ground-level ozone (smog) takes time, according to the DEQ wonks. Ozone is formed when pollutants from cars, industry, other gas engines (lawn mowers, boats) and products we use every day (personal care items, spray cans, paint) react with oxygen in the presence of sunlight, particularly when it's hot. The eight highest hours usually occur between 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. when temperatures are highest. Particle pollution often is highest during the coldest times of the day, typically in the evening and early morning, the site said.

In other words, these ratings may change for better or worse by today. So stay tuned.

As for things getting better soon, the fires may come under control and the smoke may lessen. But unless you're a Hades-loving lizard,we don't have good news on the temperature front. Even if the smoke clears, temperatures are expected to spike into the 100s beginning Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. The high on Tuesday is expected to approach 100 degrees, while Wednesday and Thursday could see the heat rising to 102 to 104. Highs are not expected to dip below 100 until Friday, which could see a daytime temperature of 94, according to the weather service.

We advise high-tailing it to the mountains, beaches or staying inside with a mint julep and the air conditioner turned up.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.