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Lungs and business take a hit

Air quality reached very unhealthy levels for communities from Ashland to Shady Cove Monday, prompting the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to suggest that small children and pregnant women should consider leaving the area.

The DEQ’s air monitoring stations recorded “very unhealthy” air in Ashland, Medford and Klamath Falls Monday morning, with Shady Cove at “hazardous” levels. By 5 p.m., Medford and Klamath Fall had improved to “unhealthy,” while Ashland and Shady Cove registered “very unhealthy.”

“We don’t expect conditions to improve much over the next several days,” said Katherine Benenati, spokeswoman for DEQ.

The smoke has already affected tourism and entertainment businesses, with Jacksonville’s Britt Festival moving concerts to North Medford High School and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival canceling some outdoor shows. An Ashland winery said its tasting room business was off by up to 20 percent.

Dozens of fires ringing the valley will continue to funnel thick smoke into the region for the foreseeable future, forecasters say. High temperatures are anticipated for the week ahead — with temperatures up to 90 degrees at 4,500 feet Wednesday — and thunderstorms that could spark more wildfires. On Monday, the U.S. Forest Service raised the fire danger in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest to extreme.

Health officials are urging residents to avoid strenuous outdoor activity.

Those with heart disease, asthma or other respiratory ailments have a higher risk of illness from wildfire smoke. People over 65 are particularly susceptible.

Small children and pregnant women are at increased risk and should consider leaving the area until air quality improves, according to the DEQ.

Residents can view current air quality conditions at https://oraqi.deq.state.or.us/home/map.

If you do venture outdoors, health officials recommend wearing particulate masks with the N95 designation, which filter out fine particles.

Whole-house carbon filters are also available at hardware stores that can filter out particles and get rid of the smoky smell.

Oregon Energy Green, a Medford company, suggests that homeowners install electrostatic filters, choosing one that indicates it can remove smoke. The company also recommends people turn their cooling system fan to the “on” position to get continuous filtering and avoid using bathroom and kitchen fans, which pull in outside air.

Heavy smoke has forced the Britt Festival to change venues for its classical shows on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from the outdoor stage in Jacksonville to a smaller auditorium at North Medford High.

It’s possible that more Britt concerts will be played elsewhere if the smoke continues.

And the change will have an impact on the Britt’s bottom line.

“Our pops concert on the 25th, we don’t have the capacity for the number of tickets,” said Mike Gantenbein, marketing director for the Britt Festival.

The Britt grounds can hold 2,200 people while the auditorium has an 800-person capacity. The festival will also have to rent trucks to move equipment.

Julie Cortez, spokeswoman for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, said it’s difficult to predict how many outdoor shows might be canceled. Two outdoor shows were canceled over the weekend.

The unhealthy air has hit ticket sales in mid-summer as well, as the word gets out about the fires and smoke that are becoming more common.

“We’ve already seen patterns in change from our patrons,” Cortez said. “We’ve seen less and less people in July and August.”

Partially as a result of these changes, the festival has decided to open the outdoor theater earlier next year, in late May instead of in June.

The indoor shows are continuing to operate, though the smoke dampens enthusiasm for tourists and staff alike.

“It’s a bummer for everybody,” Cortez said. “Nobody likes working in this.”

Weisingers Family Winery is taking a 15 to 20 percent hit, says owner-manager Eric Weisinger. Tourism also fell back in last year’s smoke, but rebounded in the early fall.

“We’re absolutely taking a whack,” says Weisinger. “If this is the new normal, then yes, I’m worried. I’m hoping it isn’t. When I was in high school here, I only recall one year where we had smoke. Now it’s two years in a row and a lot earlier. The thought of having to deal with this kind of air quality into October, I can’t see how it wouldn’t affect tourism and that wouldn’t affect everything else.”

On a personal level, native Ashlander Weisinger said, “It cuts down on any outdoor activity, which is really disappointing. We usually hike and mountain bike, but rather than do a trail run, we’re on the treadmill at the Y. It’s a real bummer.”

Indigo Creek Outfitters, an Ashland rafting company, reports that people who made reservations months ago are showing up, but, says owner Will Volpert, they’ve had a slowdown in inquiries.

“We definitely get phone calls on scheduled trips, people curious if we are even rafting or how the trip might be affected, but once out on the water, they have a great time,” says Volpert. “But the impact is on new inquiries, people calling for a two-or-three day trip starting in half a day. We’re getting hurt on the day-trip side of things.”

Asked about the longterm picture in view of regular smoky summers, he said, “Fire is something we’re always have to deal with. It’s part of business in Southern Oregon. I wish it weren’t, but it’s something we think about all the time. Financially, we have to be careful how we spend money because there always might be a slowdown.”

The blues-rock band, Rogue Suspects, is a top draw for many outdoor summer concerts in the valley, but has also felt the smoke’s sting.

“We lost two of the biggest shows of the year for us to smoke and heat and it doesn’t look like they will be the last,” said bassist Greg Frederick. “This has steadily become a big issue for us and the venues we play and our ability to make a living playing music over the past five years.”

This year is beginning to shape up to be a repeat of 2017, when smoke settled into the valley for much of the late summer.

“It’s not looking good for the rest of this summer,” said Marc Spilde, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Medford.

How bad is the air quality in Southern Oregon? It was the worst in the U.S. on Monday, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’re at ground zero for the worst air quality, according to the maps,” Spilde said. He noted that wildfires are burning in California, also pumping out foul air.

Spilde said winds should change somewhat by the end of the week, which could bring some relief from the smoke. However, winds could funnel smoke from the Hendrix fire southwest of Ashland toward the valley. “There is really no good direction to blow it out,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm. Freelance writer John Darling contributed to this story.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Martha Browning and Peter Fetterman of LA make their way through in downtown Ashland Monday morning wearing face masks due the poor air quality.