Ash falls on The Bluff, air quality 'very unhealthy'

By Rachel Rippetoe | September 5, 2017 8:14pm

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Smoke and ash have fallen on The Bluff after two large fires in The Columbia Gorge began blazing Saturday.
by Rachel Rippetoe / The Beacon

Fires in The Columbia River Gorge continue to blow smoke and ash on The Bluff, and air quality has deteriorated to a dangerous level, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The Health and Counseling Center is providing students masks to help avoid exposure to the smoke. Pilot sports teams have changed their practice and competing schedules. 

As of Tuesday at 6:00 p.m., Portland’s Air QuaIity Index was 246, which puts it in the category of “very unhealthy”. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality warned for “everyone to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion.”

The National Weather Service put out an air quality alert in Northwest Oregon until noon on Friday.

Vice President for Student Affairs Fr. John Donato sent a campus-wide email Tuesday announcing that students can pick up free surgical masks at the health center. Students with heart or lung conditions, including asthma, should be particularly careful in these smoky conditions, Donato said. 

The Health and Counseling Center is providing free surgical masks to help students cope with the smoky and ashy air.
by Hannah Sievert / The Beacon

Chair of the Environmental Science Department Steve Kolmes said that the smoky air is filled with particulates that, once inhaled, can be dangerous to your respiratory system.

“We don’t know all the effects of particulates,” Kolmes said Tuesday. “But we know they’re inflammatory and we know that inflammatory changes are associated with heart disease. We know inflammatory changes are associated with high blood pressure… We know that people with Alzheimer's have more particulates in their brains… They’re toxic and they go through your whole body.” 

Kolmes said that under no circumstance should students be exercising outdoors.

“It does people’s athletic condition and health absolutely no good to be breathing this stuff deeply,” Kolmes said. “(Exercising outdoors) increases the amount (of particulates) you’ll be transferring in your blood stream. You’re breathing more and your heart rate goes up, so your blood is circulating more quickly.”

Associate Athletic Director of Public Relations Jason Brough said that UP teams and sport medicine professionals are monitoring the air quality and will make adjustments to practice and competition schedules as needed. 

Men’s Head Cross Country Coach Rob Conner canceled cross country practice Tuesday morning on account of the smoke and ash he saw in the air. 

“I went outside this morning, and I just thought this doesn’t look good... especially seeing all the stuff on my car, you know?” Conner said. “Basically I turned the guys loose on their own to go to The Beauchamp Center or to maybe run on the indoor track here (in the Chiles Center) or go up to the park and swim in the pool.”

The Men’s and Women’s XC Preview in Eugene on Thursday was also cancelled due to poor air quality, Conner said.  

The rowing team also practiced inside on Tuesday on account of poor air quality. The women's soccer team limited its practice to 40 minutes on Tuesday. 

The Oregonian reported that the University of Oregon Ducks have moved practice to the coast at a local high school in Florence, Ore. due to poor air conditions in Eugene. Conner said he may do something similar with his runners, if the bad air quality persists. 

“I think you’ve got to view the respiratory system as our number one asset,” Conner said. “We certainly don’t want to jeopardize anybody’s system for some sort of short term maintenance. Getting out of the area would be good.”

Whether or not the air quality improves depends on when the wind shifts, when it rains and when the fires get put out, Kolmes said. The U.S Department of Forestry has a map that points out what direction fire and smoke is going in real time. 

The National Weather Service predicts a 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms Wednesday night that may improve air quality, according to Kolmes. 

“Rain is always a good thing, unless you’re flooding,” Kolmes said. “It washes the stuff out of the air.” 

As of Tuesday, the Eagle Creek Fire had burned more than 10,000 acres and forced mass evacuations.  A smaller, second fire, The Archer Mountain Fire, is burning on the Washington side of The Gorge.

As of Tuesday at 5 p.m., Interstate 84 remained closed between Hood River and Troutdale, in all westbound lanes and at least one eastbound lane.

Officials said that police believe the fire was started by fireworks. Police say they contacted the 15-year-old suspect from Vancouver in the parking lot of Eagle Creek Trail on Saturday night. 

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