smoke

A thick layer of smoke fills the air as a horse grazes in a pasture east of Bend on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020.

Smoke from five massive wildfires caused the worst air in the nation — likely in the world — to blanket Central Oregon.

On Saturday night, Madras hit 611 on the Air Quality Index of AirNow.gov, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's real-time air pollution report. It measures major pollutants and since 1976 has put out an Air Quality Index based on levels.

A rating above 301 is considered "Health warning of emergency conditions: everyone is more likely to be affected." Madras was 310 points higher than the threshold, but it wasn't even the worst in the state. Oakridge was at 618. Other spots in the state were above 500, including Eugene and Salem.

Oregon stood at the top of the nationwide list of places where breathing was noxious. On Saturday night, no other state had any place over 500 on the air quality index. Fires burning in Washington state pushed a handful of sites over 400, including Spokane at 484.

Fires were burning across California, with bad air from smoke from the Mexican border to the Redwood country next to Oregon. But only one place was above 400. Quincy in Plumas County, northeast of Sacramento, was 431. It is not far from Paradise, the site of the Camp Fire in 2018 that killed at least 85 people.

"Over 1 million acres of Oregon has burned, and our air quality currently ranks the worst in the world," said Gov. Kate Brown at a Friday press conference.

She wasn't being hyperbolic. A review Saturday night of internet pages monitoring international air quality using the same AQI scale showed no place on the planet that showed up as above 600 AQI on any two websites.

AirNow.gov uses a six-tier color coded rating. "Green" is from 0-50 and indicates "air pollution poses little or no risk. Yellow is for 51-100 and indicates "Moderate" air quality acceptable for all but those "unusually sensitive" to pollution. Orange is 101-150 and is "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups," but fine for everyone else. 

Red is 151-200 and is "Unhealthy" for the general public and could cause serious problems for sensitive groups. Purple is 201-300 and is "Very Unhealthy" and signals a public health alert. Maroon is anything 301 and above and is "Hazardous," with a health warning of emergency conditions affecting the entire population.

While fires along the West Coast have had many places rated "Hazardous," Oregon's smoke has sent ratings spectacularly up the charts. 

At noon on Sunday, the worst air in the United States was Sisters, with an AQI of 566. Salem was second with 556. Roseburg was at 540. Madras registered at 534.

Bend was 441, Eugene was 433 and Pendleton was 417.

Portland had the worst air of any major city in the nation, at 409.

Other Oregon cities above 400 were Ashland, Applegate Valley, Cave Junction, and Cottage Grove. 

Prineville was 384. Other cities over the 300 "hazardous" rating were La Grande, Klamath Falls, Oakridge, Albany, Beaverton and Corvallis.

Overall, 20 of Oregon's 36 reporting locations on the EPA site were rated as "hazardous." Five more locations that had recorded hazardous levels in previous days were offline: Medford, Crater Lake, Lyons, Multorpor, and Shady Cove.

Everywhere else in the state, air was 100-200, rating a health warning for either sensitive groups or the general public.

The only location in double digits was Coos Bay, at 98:  Moderate.

Nowhere in the state was the air rated at below 50: "Good."

As bad as the numbers were at Sunday noon, they were lower than some of the highest readings in recent days. Saturday night was when Oakridge and Madras passed 600. Salem was 544. Bend was 506.

Photos from space in the past three days showed all of Oregon covered with a blanket of smoke, the thickest spot in a thousands of miles long tail created by burning forests and towns from British Columbia to northern Mexico.

On the ground, photos and videos showed smoke obscuring the Art Deco columns and steel arches of Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport on the central Oregon Coast. Portland's skyline turned a fuzzy orange at sunset. The stark white granite of the Capitol in Salem stood out against the light red sky overhead. In Bend, video showed people riding the waves at the Whitewater Surf Park, where the water of the Deschutes River looked brown and the sky a pasty concrete off-white.

The statistics also show how bad the smoke would become and how far it would spread in relatively short days.

The month opened with Oregon showing great air almost everywhere. The state was battling COVID-19 and a rocky economy, but were able to heed the government's public health advice to meet outside (with social distancing and masks when needed). 

On Sept. 1, only two of 36 stations reported air quality below "Good:" Sisters had the highest mark, 81, "Moderate" air quality. Bend just missed the "Good" level with a rating of 53, also "Moderate."

Elsewhere competition wasn't for worst air, but best. Multorpor, a popular skiing area southwest of Mount Hood (whose name comes from a combination of Multnomah County, Oregon and Portland), led with a 5 rating. Burns was second with 9.

Several cities in the teens included Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Prinevville, Albany, Beaverton, Roseburg, John Day, Oakridge, Lyons, The Dalles, Baker City, Enterprise, Hillsboro, and Sweet Home. Medford was 20, Madras was 25, Klamath Falls was 27, Pendleton was 29.  

The Coos Bay and Crater Lake reporting stations were offline, but weather information from that Monday showed likely good conditions.

One week later, on Tuesday Sept. 8, the state's fires were starting to spread. Two sites near fires had hazardous rating: Lyons at 499 and Eugene at 319. But the state still had "Good" air in 15 places, including Bend, Pendleton, Sisters, Madras, Prineville, La Grande, Baker City, Burns, La Grande, and Beaverton.

On Wednesday, there were seven spots with "Hazardous" ratings, led by Salem with 544. Bend was at Moderate with 54, not far off the rating on Sept. 1. Portland, at 136, was "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups." Pendleton, Sisters, Madras and Prineville were among several "Moderate" sites. But you could still find "Good" air in four spots: Ashland had the best air at 33, but not far behind were Klamath Falls, Medford and Lakeview. On Thursday, the EPA records show no reports for all but four sites: Cottage Grove at 510 and Eugene at 417 were "Hazardous." Oakridge was 239, "Very Unhealthy." Coos Bay at 103 was at the very bottom of "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups."

The smoke was widespread by Friday. "Good" air ratings were gone from Oregon, while 14 sites reported "Hazardous" air, led by Bend at 483. The heavy smoke had blown as far east as Pendleton, with a 319 "Hazardous" rating. Portland was 289, the top end of "Very Unhealthful." On Saturday, smoke had blown everywhere in the state, with 21 "Hazardous" ratings. Even the best spots in the state — Coos Bay at 108 and Lakeview at 144 were "Unsafe for Sensitive Groups." 

Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said Friday that Oregon hopes to double the current 3,000 firefighters now in Oregon over coming weeks. The majority of the 32 currently active fires that have burned over 1,500 square miles of the state can be extinguished. Those along the coast and smaller blazes will soon be "off the map" to allow for resources to shift into reopening the east-west highways over the Cascades and encircling the biggest blazes.

But Grafe said the biggest of the big will burn for some time. That includes:

• The more than 400,000-acre fire complex created by the joining of the Lionshead, Beachie Creek and Riverside fires that stretches from Warm Springs in Jefferson County, down the Santiam River valley into Marion County and north into the southeastern suburbs of Portland in Clackamas County.

• The Holiday Farm Fire in the McKenzie River valley covering 162,000 acres from the crest of the Cascades to the outskirts of Eugene and Springfield.

• The Archie Creek Fire, burning 122,000-acres east of Roseburg

• The Slater Fire, burning across 126,000-acres that straddle the Oregon-California border south of Cave Junction. 

"To manage expectations, we will see smoke and we will have firefighters on those fires up until the heavy rains of the fall. And that's simply the reality of having that much fire on the landscape."

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